Surgeons conduct world’s first successful whole-eye and face transplant

NYU surgeons have accomplished what they believe to be the world’s first whole-eye transplant, coupled with a partial face transplant.

[Nov. 12, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Aaron James with his family in October, 2023, five months after his operation. James was the first patient to receive a whole-eye transplant. (CREDIT: Russ Geltman / NYU Langone Health)

In an unprecedented medical achievement, surgeons at NYU Langone Health have accomplished what they believe to be the world's first whole-eye transplant, coupled with a partial face transplant. This groundbreaking procedure marks a significant milestone in the fields of transplantation and vision restoration, offering hope to individuals who have suffered severe facial injuries or vision loss.

The remarkable surgery took place in May, as a dedicated team of over 140 healthcare professionals undertook a grueling 21-hour procedure on Aaron James, a 46-year-old power lineman from Arkansas.

James, a military veteran, had endured a devastating workplace accident in 2021, when he accidentally made contact with a live wire, resulting in a catastrophic electric shock. Though fortunate to survive, he paid a heavy price, losing his left eye, a substantial portion of his facial features, and part of his left arm in the accident.

While the restoration of his vision remains uncertain, the unique dual transplant has already provided Aaron James with substantial cosmetic improvements and enhanced his ability to speak and consume solid food. For the first time since his life-altering incident, James eagerly anticipates sharing a Thanksgiving meal with his family this year.

Reflecting on the challenging two years following the accident, James expressed his gratitude and determination during a press conference on November 9, stating, "The past two years have been a test of strength, willpower, family, friends, and I think we beat it."

While corneal transplants have become a relatively common procedure to restore vision in damaged eyes, and around 50 face transplants have been performed worldwide, including several by Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the lead surgeon of the NYU team that conducted James' operation, a successful whole-eye transplant had never been documented until now.

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Dr. Rodriguez acknowledged the groundbreaking nature of the procedure, stating, "There's really been no [previous] attempts [of this procedure], whatsoever, as a human clinical trial. It's uncharted territory."

Transplanting an eye presents unique complexities and risks, as the organ is intricately connected to the brain. This connection introduces grave risks, including the possibility of death, should any complications arise or rejection occur.

Despite these formidable challenges, Dr. Rodriguez and his team, with the blessing of Aaron James and his family, chose to embark on this unprecedented journey. A single donor, a man in his 30s, generously provided both the face and eye for transplantation. Although initial expectations were cautious, Dr. Rodriguez's team was determined to explore the limits of medical possibility.

Aaron James with his family before surgery. (CREDIT: James Family)

In the intricate 21-hour procedure, rehearsed meticulously over a dozen times, the team injected stem cells harvested from the donor's bone marrow into the transplanted eye's optic nerve. Stem cells, the versatile building blocks for specialized cells in the human body, hold the potential to repair damaged cells, including those in the eye. The infusion of stem cells into the optic nerve aimed to enhance the prospects of nerve regeneration and, ultimately, eye function.

It is still too early to definitively ascertain whether Aaron James will regain vision in his transplanted eye. However, encouraging signs have emerged in the months since the surgery. Blood now flows directly to the retina of the new eye, the crucial component responsible for sensing light and transmitting signals to the brain to form images. Additionally, the eye boasts a viable pupil.

Aaron James sees his new face for the first time, along with Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez and his family. (CREDIT: NYU Langone Health)

While Aaron James retains vision in his right eye and cannot yet open his left eyelid, he considers the surgery a resounding success. He shared his perspective, saying, "When they approached me with the eye transplant and asked me if I wanted to do it, I said, 'Of course.' You've got to start somewhere."

The groundbreaking procedure on Aaron James serves as a beacon of hope for countless individuals facing similar challenges. It demonstrates the tremendous potential of medical innovation, pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible in the fields of transplantation and vision restoration.

Aaron and Meagan James kiss for the first time since Aaron received a face and eye transplant following a 2021 injury. (CREDIT: NYU Langone Health)

Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez and his dedicated team at NYU Langone Health have opened new doors to hope and possibilities, offering renewed optimism to patients like Aaron James who dream of regaining their lost sight and facial function.

As medical science continues to advance, the future holds even more promise for those seeking to overcome the limitations of severe facial injuries and vision loss.

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.