London, Nov. 27 (Reuters): Full face transplants are no longer science fiction fantasy, a leading surgeon said today. They are technically feasible but ethically complex.
Peter Butler from London’s Royal Free Hospital called for a debate on the ethics of such an operation made possible by new drugs which stop the body’s immune system rejecting a transplanted face. “It is not ‘Can we do it'’ but ‘Should we do it'’,” he told the BBC. “The technical part is not complex, but I don’t think that’s going to be the very great difficulty... The ethical and moral debate is obviously going to have to take place before the first facial transplantation.”
The British Association of Plastic Surgeons holds its winter meeting later and will discuss the microsurgical procedure, which could give new skin, bone, nose, chin, lips and ears from deceased donors to patients disfigured by accidents, burns or cancer.
But surgeons could have trouble finding enough willing donors. Butler said his survey of doctors, nurses and members of the public showed most would accept a face transplant but few were willing to donate their own after dying.
Butler said one of the possible techniques would see a “skin envelope” of fat, skin and blood vessels transplanted onto existing bone, leaving patients with many of their own features.
But in an echo of the sci-fi thriller Face Off, another more complex procedure would transplant underlying bone as well, so the patient would end up resembling the donor. In the Hollywood blockbuster, Nicolas Cage who plays a master criminal swaps faces with his nemisis, John Travolta, using laser technology.
Despite a number of ethical concerns, Christine Piff, who founded the charity Let’s Face It after suffering a rare facial cancer 25 years ago, welcomed the possibility of face transplants .
She rejected the idea that the procedure would mean people would end up living with a dead person’s face. “There are so many people without faces, I have half a face... but we are all so much more than just a face... you don’t take on their personality. You are still you,” she said.
“If we can donate other organs of the body then why not the face. I can’t see anything wrong with it.”