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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Face transplants in the offing
Image courtesy of Dark Animation
How the virtual patient looked (Courtesy of Darkside Animation)
Experts have played down fears that people who have face transplants would look like their dead donor.

Doctors in the United States have carried out face transplants on dead bodies donated for medical research.

Now doctors at the University of Louisville hope to carry out the procedure on living patients.

They have requested formal approval from the university's institutional review board, which vets new research proposals, New Scientist magazine says.

If approved, the procedure is likely to be offered to people with severe facial injuries or disfigurement.

'Risks unknown'

The move comes just six months after the Royal College of Surgeons of England urged doctors not to carry out face transplants.

In a report, the college acknowledged that the technology to carry out such a procedure existed.

Image courtesy of Dark Animation
The virtual face transplant will feature on a TV documentary (Courtesy of Darkside Animation)
However, it warned that too little is known about the possible risks, including the physical and psychological effects.

It also voiced concerns over the impact of such a procedure on the family of the donor, particularly if the patient looked like their deceased relative.

But this latest research suggests that those fears are groundless.

"More often than not you don't recognise the person," said Dr John Barker, who is leading the research at Louisville University.

New Scientist magazine recently teamed up with British TV company Mentorn to test the theory further. They commissioned Darkside Animation to carry out a virtual face transplant.

The firm scanned the face of a living woman and placed this face on a standard 3D model of a human skull.

They then developed a virtual donor, with different facial features. The team then carried out a transplant, placing the face of the virtual donor onto the woman's skull.

The recipient shared some of the features of the donor, such as the shape of her mouth. However, by and large she had her own distinct identity.

The project will feature in a documentary to be screened on the Discovery Health channel in the United States on 28 May and on Channel 4 in the UK at a later date.


Peter Butler, a surgeon at London's Royal Free Hospital, has also been carrying out research in this area.

He has said in the past that he would not carry out a face transplant until the psychological, immunological, moral and ethical questions are resolved.

Mr Butler has also expressed concerns about the drugs that patients who have face transplants would have to take.

"These drugs have significant complications and they don't always work," he said. "Is it really worth it for the patient?"

The UK charity Changing Faces, which helps people with facial disfigurements, said it was concerned about plans to carry out face transplants.

"Changing Faces is extremely concerned about the news that surgeons in Louisville, USA, are seeking an application to proceed with the world's first face transplant," said its chief executive James Partridge.

"There a great many questions to which answers are needed before this extremely risky and experimental surgery could be considered a viable option for patients with severe facial disfigurements."

The BBC's David Shukman
"The surgeons may say they're ready, but who else is?"

Q&A: Face transplants
19 Nov 03  |  Health
Surgeons oppose face transplants
19 Nov 03  |  Health
'I don't want a face transplant'
19 Nov 03  |  Health

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