Third Face Transplant Signals Advancements, Acceptance

With the world's third face transplant patient resting in the recovery room, surgeons have once again shown that the operation is viable.

But the third success begs the question: Will the procedure ever become commonplace?

"Used to be, it was a curiosity," said Dr. Peter Costantino in an interview with ABC Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson on the ABC News Now "Healthy Life" program.

"Now we're seeing several centers developing capabilities, of which we hope to be one," he said. "You're going to see in major centers around the world the opportunity to have parts or significant amounts of the face replaced depending on the needs of the patient."

But while there may be more of these procedures in the years to come, each case still comes with its own set of special considerations.

"These are very specific cases," said Dr. Scott Levin, professor and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Duke University Medical Center. "They are not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination."

Doctors Say Surgery a Success…So Far

Surgeons in France announced the completion of the partial transplant procedure on Tuesday. The 29-year-old patient's face was disfigured by a genetic disorder known as neurofibromatosis -- a condition that causes large but benign tumors to form on the nerves. It is sometimes referred to as the "Elephant Man disease" after James Merrick, who suffered from the disease in the 1800s.

"The lower part of the face was completely destroyed by this benign tumor, and we had to remove everything," said Dr. Laurent Lantieri, lead surgeon and head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Henri Mondor Hospital in the Paris suburb of Creteil, during a press conference Tuesday.

"As we removed all this part of the face, which are the lips, the nose and part of the cheeks, the only way we could reconstruct it correctly was to do a face transplant."

By the end of the 16-hour procedure, surgeons said the patient was recovering well. However, doctors will only be able to know for certain whether the operation was a success in the days to come.

"We have to wait to see if the nerves will grow, and we have to wait to see if the face will move, and finally we have to wait to see if the patient will be able to go back to a normal social life," Lantieri said.

The case differs from the two previous face transplants in that it was performed to correct disfigurement from a genetic condition rather than from an accident.

Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire, who was the first face transplant recipient, required the surgery in 2005 after her dog attacked her.

The second patient, a Chinese farmer, received a partial transplant following a bear attack that disfigured his face.

Costantino said this third procedure is a step forward in making face transplant surgery a reality in multiple surgical centers around the world.

"The big change is that the French surgeons have been able to put it together as a single operation, work out logistics of getting the donor and the recipient together, and they've really advanced the field based on techniques that already existed," Costantino said.

"That means that we're going to see this in many places around the world in the next several years."

Challenges Still Exist

But before this happens, surgeons will have to find better ways to deal with many of the complications that come with face transplants -- and the issue of tissue rejection tops the list.

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