A team of surgeons in New York announced Thursday that they had performed the world’s first whole eye transplant. This was a medical breakthrough. However, it is not yet known whether the patient will actually regain his sight.
The groundbreaking surgery removed part of a donor’s face and the entire left eye and transplanted them into the recipient: a 46-year-old line worker who survived a 7,200-volt electric shock in June 2021 when his face touched a live wire.
Aaron James, 46, suffered serious injuries including the loss of his left eye, his dominant left arm above the elbow, his entire nose and lips, his front teeth, his left cheek area and his chin to the bone.
He was referred to NYU Langone Health, a leading facial reconstruction medical center, which performed the procedure on May 27.
Transplantation of an entire eye has long been a holy grail of medical science, and although researchers have had some success in mice – where they partially restored vision – it has never been done before in a living person.
“The mere fact that we performed the first successful transplant of a whole eye and face is a tremendous achievement that many have long thought impossible,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, who led the 21-hour operation that included patient-specific procedures 3D cutting guides were used. “We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect patient,” he added.
Although the transplanted left eye shows signs of good health, including direct blood flow to the retina, which is responsible for receiving light and transmitting images to the brain, it is not certain that James will regain his sight.
Still, “this is a huge deal,” Kia Washington, a professor of surgery at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus who has worked in the same field for 15 years, told AFP.
Daniel Pelaez of the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, who is also working toward the same goal, told AFP: “The transplant of a human eye at NYU Langone represents a pivotal moment in our shared quest to restore vision and gives hope .” countless people around the world.”
James, whose right eye is still intact, was considered an ideal candidate because his need for a face transplant would mean he would need immunosuppressive medication anyway, making the risk-benefit calculation favorable – even if it only provides cosmetic value and not vision .
“I am indescribably grateful to the donor and his family, who gave me a second chance at life during their difficult time. “I hope the family finds comfort in knowing that part of the donor lives on with me,” said James, who returned to his native Arkansas in September to be with his wife and daughter.
He must continue to return to New York for monthly follow-up appointments and has the opportunity to return to work as a safety manager for power line workers in the future.
Given the time that has passed since the surgery, Washington said she didn’t think it was likely that James’ eye would see again, but “I never say anything is impossible,” she added.
NYU’s Langone team said they used adult stem cells from bone marrow to promote nerve repair.
To achieve the goal of restoring vision, other innovative approaches could come to play, Washington said — including gene therapy to harness the optic nerve’s intrinsic healing ability; Using a so-called nerve wrap to protect the tissue; or using devices that receive signals and bypass the damaged signal path.
“We are making great progress in treatments to promote optic nerve regeneration that could accompany an eye transplant,” Jeffrey Golberg, who leads similar efforts at Stanford University’s Byers Eye Institute, told AFP.
“These adjunctive therapies will enable the donor eye to provide a significant connection to the brain and restore meaningful visual function to blind patients around the world.”
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