A team of surgeons at a London hospital has been given the go-ahead to carry out the first face transplant in Britain.

Peter Butler, consultant plastic surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, and colleagues, will begin the search for a suitable patient prepared to undergo the experimental procedure, after being granted initial approval by the hospital's ethics committee.

The operation, which is likely to be performed on a burns victim and may involve replacement of the full face and scalp, could be carried out next year.

The decision, disclosed yesterday, comes two weeks after a team of French surgeons carried out the world's first partial face transplant on a woman who had been savaged by a dog. The woman, Isabelle Dinoire, is reported to be recovering well after the operation in which her nose, lips and chin were replaced with a transplant from a donor.

Mr Butler, who began investigating face transplants in 2000, said the decision to give the go-ahead by the Royal Free was the culmination of five years of research. Only one other team, in the US, has been granted similar approval.

"The success of the French team probably made people [on the ethics committee] feel less nervous. The results are looking good and they know [our transplant] will now not be the first," Mr Butler said.

Twenty severely damaged patients had approached him over the past couple of years asking to be considered for a transplant, he said. Doctors also had patients they wanted to refer. "We have to be extremely careful about whom we select. We are trying to raise funds for the first five operations, so bad patient selection would not only damage the patient but the process," Mr Butler added.

All candidates for the operation would be assessed psychologically and surgically. If judged suitable, they would then go through a lengthy consent and education process, before returning to the ethics committee to get the final go-ahead. But, Mr Butler said, it was now "just a matter of time".