British surgeons could perform the world's first full face transplant within months after they were given the go-ahead today.

Consultant surgeon Peter Butler was granted permission for the pioneering surgery by the ethics committee at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London.

Mr Butler, who has been researching the plan for years, said he was " delighted" by the news.

Mr Butler said he hoped the operation could be performed within "a year" but insisted it was not a race.

Surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio in the United States are also selecting suitable patients for an operation there.

Mr Butler said: "I feel delighted that we have got the go-ahead. It's been a long journey but this is just the beginning, really.

"The most important part of the process starts now, which is selection of the patients."

Mr Butler's team has been approached by 34 patients from all over the world but he wants more people to come forward now approval has been granted.

His team will choose four patients from the UK or Ireland for staged operations, possibly six months apart.

The patients are all likely to have pan-facial disfigurement - which means the whole face has been affected by injury, such as severe burns spreading to the scalp or ears.

Mr Butler said: "These patients will have already undergone reconstructive surgery - perhaps they will have had 50 to 70 reconstructive operations.

"They have reached the end of the reconstructive ladder and there's nothing more it can offer them."

Such patients are still affected by their injuries, such as not being able to fully close their mouth or eyelids, he said.

"Then they have the problem of integration into society, of being able to walk down the street in society without anybody staring at them. That's all these people want - to be normal."

Mr Butler, 44, has worked at Royal Free for seven years. The full transplant would be carried out there in a 10 to 12-hour operation.

Mr Butler said he hoped face transplants would become the first choice in reconstructive surgery if the operation proved a success.

"Why would you want to put a patient through so many procedures and then have to do a transplant?" he asked, adding that that was a "long way off".

Studies have shown that public support for face transplants is high, he said, and much has been done to allay people's fears.

"One of the questions you get asked is 'If I donate the face of my loved one, am I going to see them walking down the street?'."

But computer modelling showed that facial characteristics following transplant are mostly those of the recipient rather than the donor, he said.

The main reason is that the skin is pliable and falls across the bone structure and cartilage of the person receiving the new face.

"There will be a transfer of things like skin colour and hair colour, but you would not be able to tell it is the donor's face," Mr Butler said.

Last November the world's first partial face transplant took place in France.

A team of surgeons led by Professor Jean-Michel Dubernard carried out the operation on 38-year-old Isabelle Dinoire.