July 12, 2011 -- Doctors in Spain performed the first-ever double leg transplant on a young man on Monday, and said if his physical rehabilitation goes well, he could be up walking on crutches in six or seven months.
Dr. Pedro Cavadas, a transplant surgeon at La Fe Hospital in Valencia, Spain who led the surgical team, said during a press conference the patient was very excited after he saw his new legs.
But doctors stress that while the patient is doing well so far, it's difficult to say for sure how he will progress.
"[It] is the first time in the world that reconstructive surgery of this nature has been performed, so it is not possible to anticipate the outcome," the hospital said in a press release.
Surgeons performed the complex 10-hour operation on a young man in his 20s who lost both legs in an accident. They didn't provide any other details about the recipient or donor.
Cavadas is the same surgeon who performed Spain's first double arm transplant in 2008 as well as the country's first face transplant in 2009.
Health officials gave final approval for the transplant in November and then carried out a search for a suitable donor.
A transplant surgeon not involved in this case also believes the young man will someday walk again, but says in addition to enduring the intensive physical rehabilitation learning to walk will take, he will have to overcome a number of other challenges as well.
"He has to recover from a major operation and how that he's a transplant patient, he'll probably need lifelong immunosuppressive medications to prevent his body's immune system from destroying the transplanted limbs," said Dr. David Levi, professor of surgery at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "And even after everything is healed, it will be a lot of time before the neuromuscular anatomy is integrated into his brain so he can walk."
First Ever Double Leg Transplant
Levi said there are a number of ethical issues that doctors probably had to address before performing the surgery. One of the main questions is how the surgery will impact the patient's life.
"No matter how dramatic the result might be, it must be considered a life-improving transplant," he said. "They have to justify the risks involved."
He believes Cavadas and the other doctors felt strongly the young man would walk again, otherwise people would question why they performed the surgery.
According to media reports, doctors tried artificial limbs with this patient, but he couldn't walk with them because his legs were amputated too far above the knee.
While this man is the world's first double leg transplant case, Levi said doctors are performing more and more similar types of surgeries. There have been several face, hand and abdominal wall transplants, which all fit into the same category of transplant operations.
"Will it ever be done in the U.S.? Possibly. Things are moving forward with these types of transplants," he said.