Surgeons say face transplants are still too risky

Doctors called yesterday for a ban on face transplants for people disfigured by burns or disease until the medical and psychological problems associated with them are better understood.

Face transplants are technically achievable and present one of the most exciting possibilities for plastic surgeons, but the resultant "hype" must be curbed in the interests of patients, the Royal College of Surgeons said.

At least five groups around the world are understood to be researching face transplants. In Britain, 10 people have approached Peter Butler, a consultant plastic surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital in London, who published preliminary research last year on the subject.

Plastic surgeons say transplanting a whole face would be technically simpler, and give better cosmetic results than the current method of using tissues from other parts of a person's body, which can involve up to 100 separate operations.

But the report by a working party of the royal college says patients would have to take lifelong anti-rejection drugs, live with the constant fear that the transplant could fail and have to cope with a radically changed appearance. The risks make it "unwise to proceed" with the operation, it says, although it should be recognised as a possible future treatment.

Sir Peter Morris, president of the royal college, who chaired the working party, said: "We do not feel it is appropriate at the moment for this experimental procedure to go ahead." He estimated that one in 10 transplants might fail in the first few weeks and up to half could face chronic rejection after two to three years.

John Barker, a plastic surgeon at the University of Louisville, said his team was ready to perform the first face transplant. But he said he supported the royal college report: "We have to be cautious, we have to move slowly."

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