Face and hand transplant patient dies

Pioneering surgeons pay tribute as Frenchman dies from superbug infection

A French man who was the first person in the world to receive a simultaneous face and hand transplant has died during a follow-up operation. The 30-year-old man, whose identity has never been revealed, suffered terrible burns in an accident in 2004. In April, he was given two new hands and a new face including, for the first time, transplanted eyelids.

It was announced yesterday that the man had died on 8 June at the Henri Mondor hospital in Créteil, just east of Paris. Although his body had not rejected the transplanted organs, his new face had become infected by highly-resistant bacteria or a so-called "super bug". He died of a heart attack while having surgery to reduce the infection.

The man was the sixth person in the world to receive a new face, beginning with the French woman, Isabelle Dinoire, in 2005. Four of the other patients are doing well. A Chinese face transplant patient died last year after ceasing to take the immune-suppressant drugs that prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs.

The surgeon who led the transplant operation, Professor Laurent Lantieri, yesterday paid tribute to the courage of the young man and defended the decision to undertake such a complex double operation. "He was so badly maimed and disfigured that he could only be treated by transplant surgery," said the professor, who had carried out two earlier face transplants. "We cannot at the moment explain why he suffered this cardiac arrest. All tests show that there was no rejection and no vascular problem."

Professor Lantieri said the operation, despite the patient's death, had taken transplant surgery into important new territory. "We proved that eyelids, which had never been transplanted before, could be replaced," he said. "Several weeks after the original operation, the eyelids showed signs of being able to move." The patient's upper face was reconstructed, with a new scalp, forehead, nose, ears and upper and lower eyelids. He also received new hands, attached above the wrist.

The French agency which monitors and approves complex transplants, the Agence de Biomédecine, said that the patient's death should not distract from the advances made in transplant medicine in France in past the decade. In that time, there had been five hand transplants, three face transplants and one combined hand and face transplant. All but two were, so far, successful. The other failure was that of the first hand transplant patient, the New Zealander, Clint Hallam, who was given a new hand by French surgeons in 1998. He later had the hand removed after refusing to continue with his programme of anti-rejection drugs.

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