June 19, 2006

UK doctors seek green light for first face transplant

By Peter Griffiths

LONDON (Reuters) - Doctors in Britain will seek approval
for the world's first full face transplant from a hospital's
ethics panel this week, a spokesman for the research team said
on Monday.

Surgeons at the Royal Free Hospital in north London are
ready to perform the complicated operation but have yet to find
a suitable patient.

"We have seen just under 30 people with severe facial
injuries, but none of those is in the final assessment
program," the spokesman said. "There are many more people to

The hospital's committee meets on Wednesday to weigh up the
psychological and ethical issues for the potential recipient
and the donor's family.

The British team, led by surgeon Peter Butler, says the
operation would give patients disfigured by accidents, burns or
disease the chance of a normal life.

Critics say patients would struggle to cope with the
immense psychological pressure of dealing with their new
identity in the glare of the world's media.

Patients may be "highly distressed" by their new appearance
and would worry that their body might reject the transplant,
according to a report by the Royal College of Surgeons of
England published in 2003.

The drugs needed to stop the body rejecting the new face
can cause complications such as skin cancer, it said. The
procedure is so complicated that patients may be unable to give
informed consent.

Doctors have yet to perform a full face transplant,
although two patients in China and France have had operations
to replace part of their face.

Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire received a new nose, lips and
chin last November after being mauled by her dog. In April, a
Chinese man attacked by a bear had two-thirds of his face
replaced during a 14-hour operation, according to the Xinhua
news agency.

Those operations sparked a fierce debate about the impact
on the patient living with a dead person's face.

The British team has said the donor's face would be
unrecognizable after transplant due to their different bone

Research teams around the world are working on the world's
first full facial transplantation in what has been dubbed the
"Face Race."

The charity Changing Faces, which helps people with
disfigurements, said the transplants raised difficult ethical,
psychological and technical questions.

"It would be unwise to proceed at speed," a spokeswoman
said. "We want some answers to some of these questions."

The Department of Health said it was a matter for the
hospital's ethics committee. The hospital declined to comment
ahead of the meeting.

The committee may take up to two months to reach a decision
and more hearings may be needed when candidates for surgery are
found, Butler's spokesman said.