A complete facial transplantation will soon become reality.
The physicians from Great Britain, France and the US claim that this complex surgical operation is technically possible. Right after ethical and psychological questions would be resolved, surgeons will be able to start transplanting dead people faces…
Six years ago two grave enemies exchanged their faces in a Hollywood movie "Face/Off". What was a song about future can become reality nowadays. British physicians and their French colleagues are ready to turn the new page in transplantation surgery. They want to help people whose faces were destroyed in accidents, cancer or fire, by transplanting dead people faces. However, it is essential to resolve questions of ethical and psychological aspects inevitably associated with such operations.
The first to talk about this was a Royal Hospital of London surgeon Peter Butler. An experimenting surgeon, he gained scandalous fame when successfully transplanted a human ear onto a mouse back in 1996. One year ago he said that the first operation could have been made in a few months. It did not happen, but a medicine invented by Butler was presented, the medicine which prevents tearing-away of foreign facial parts.
Problems of ethics and morals
Butler's methodic offers to transplant both facial muscles and skin of dead people faces. As a result, the mimic is restored, since the special transplantation technology helps the muscles to preserve their mobility. With a help of modern microsurgery, a patient has an opportunity to receive completely modified lips, ears, chin and nose. All this from a dead man.
The Royal hospital's management underlined that facial transplantation is not possible before careful consideration of all the props and cons of such an intrusion. Press-secretary of the hospital approved that Peter Butler and his team are technically ready to start face transplantation operations, but moral, ethical and psychological aspects has to be discussed prior to that. Over the next week these problems will be discussed in Royal surgeons society, then social debates should take place, and only after that surgeons will be able to use their skills in practice.
Preparations for the first operation of this kind are on full speed in France. A team of French surgeons working on it is ready to start transplanting any moment after receiving an official sanction.
There is no shortage of patients. The same London Royal hospital has already received 10 requests. All these people, according to a survey, are ready to have an appearance of people unknown to them.
Between those opposing such operations are both physicians and social organizations. They think the question is not whether this is possible technically, but if it is needed at all. Christine Piff, a member of "Let's Face It" organization, has been wearing an artificial facial limb for 25 years. She argues that she can not imagine wearing someone else's face. But it is not only the ethical considerations that rise fears of a certain kind. For instance, a plastic surgeon from Vienna University clinic, Rupert Koeller, says that it is impossible to predict fully the reaction of immune system to foreign matter, and if in a case of hands transplantation it can be undone, this is not that easy with facial operations.
Yet another question is a possible use of the new method by criminal organizations, including terrorists, who would be able to escape and continue their activities by changing their faces completely.
[Illustration: a still from "The Seventh Seal", courtesy of Ingmar Bergman]