CHICAGO – The first full-face transplant patients in the U.S. are growing into their new appearances — literally.
Medical imaging shows new blood vessel networks have formed, connecting transplanted skin with the patients’ facial tissue, a finding that may help improve future face transplant surgeries, doctors announced Wednesday.
Dallas Wiens, the first U.S. man to get a full face transplant, is a remarkable example of that success. The 28-year-old attended Wednesday’s annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America with his new wife and golden retriever guide dog. Despite scars from the March 2011 surgery, he looks and sounds like a recovered man.
His face was burned off in a 2008 accident at his church when his head hit a high-voltage wire while he was painting.
After surgery, Wiens lived for two years with no facial features and just a slit for a mouth, until his transplant at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Imaging studies on Wiens and two other full-face transplants done at the hospital in 2011 show that a network of new blood vessels had formed just a year after the operations. A fourth transplant was performed at the hospital this year.
The same thing typically happens with other transplants and it helps ensure their success by boosting blood flow to the donor tissue. But doctors say this is the first time it has happened with full-face transplants.
The finding could eventually shorten the operating time for future face transplants, radiologist Dr. Frank Rybicki said. The operations can take up to 30 hours and include attaching arteries in the patients’ existing tissue to the donor face, but the findings suggest that attaching only two facial or neck arteries instead of several is sufficient.
Face transplants, using tissue from cadavers, are still experimental. Fewer than 30 have been done since the first in 2005, said Dr. Branko Bojovich, a surgeon involved in a 2012 face transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Wiens’ life before the accident was troubled, and he says he misses nothing about it except possibly his eyesight.
He met his wife, Jamie Nash, in a support group for burn patients, and they were married in March at the church where Wiens’ accident occurred.