Surgeons Detail First U.S. Face Transplant

"The reason to do something like this is the belief on the part of the transplant team that replacing the face would offer a better result than the traditional methods of skin grafting and other procedures," Canady said. "That, ultimately, is the indication for any procedure."

And Canady said that while the success of this surgery is heartening, the procedure is years from entering the medical mainstream.

"I think that it's important, whenever you are doing a new procedure or when you're using a new medication in medicine, to have enough treated patients and elapsed time to reach some definitive conclusion. It is very hard with a small number of patients and a shorter follow-up to reach conclusions in terms of changing practice."

On the other hand, Dr. David Song, chief and program director of plastic surgery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, said he feels research will nonetheless quickly move forward in the field.

"Our group is also in the process of composite tissue allotransplantation, as are many groups in the country, and we anticipate that these operations and strategies will continue to develop rapidly," Song said.

"This may indeed become a conventional therapy," agreed Dr. Joren Madsen, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Transplant Center and Section Chief of Cardiac Surgery at MGH, as well as president-elect of the American Society of Transplantation. Madsen described face transplantation as "a seed just germinated and about to bloom."

"This is also the type of transplant that will be needed for rehabilitating soldiers who need composite tissue grafts," he said. "These are techniques that need to be investigated and adopted for our boys and girls coming home with severe injuries."

Face Transplants Expensive, Complex

Still, though medical experts around the country say the procedure may herald a new era of reconstructive surgery, it is unclear how many hospitals nationwide have even developed face transplant programs. Only one medical center out of U.S. News and World Reports' top 10 list -- Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston -- told ABC News that it has a program in place.

Part of the hesitance may be the sheer complexity of the procedure, as well as the anatomy of the face itself.

"A face has what's called mimetic movements," Canady said. "When you laugh or smile, you're not thinking about laughing or smiling; you just do it. These are involuntary movements in a face that make it a face. I don't know how much of that is possible to be regained in a transplanted face."

Increased acceptance of the procedure among patients and the public is another hurdle.

"We have tried to enter patients into our own study to do face transplants, but it is a very uphill battle," said Dr. David Young, professor of Plastic Surgery at the University of California at San Francisco. "Even when we did first heart transplants, it was hard to convince people to do it; it's very hard to break through that psychological social barrier."

But, he added, "Once we do more of it, society will look at it differently, and people afraid to do it now might elect to do it."

Facing the Costs

Cost of the still-fledgling procedure may be another issue. The Cleveland Clinic did not reveal the price tag of the recent procedure, which involved numerous doctors from 12 different specialties. But Young said the costs were likely immense.

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