US doctors prepare for first human face transplant operation

Five men and seven women to visit secretly the Cleveland Clinic in the next few weeks for an interview on the chance to have a radical operation - a face transplant.

Dr Maria Siemionow will study each prospective patient to determine the best candidate for the operation.

But this is no extreme TV makeover. It is a medical frontier being explored by Siemionow, who wants the public to understand what she is trying to do.

It is this: to give people horribly disfigured by burns, accidents or other tragedies a chance at a new life. Today's best treatments still leave many of them with freakish, scar-tissue masks that don't look or move like natural skin.

These people have already lost the sense of identity that is linked to the face; the transplant is merely "taking a skin envelope" and slipping their identity inside, Siemionow says, reports the Mail Online.

According to Guardian, last year a team at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, which had successfully transplanted a human hand, decided not to go ahead with face transplants after examining the ethical issues. "At stake is a person's self-image, social acceptability and sense of normalcy," wrote Osborne Wiggins, a philosophy professor and clinical investigator at the university, in the American Journal of Bioethics.

In the same journal, Carson Strong, a bioethicist at the University of Tennessee, wrote: "It would leave the patient with an extensive facial wound with potentially serious physical and psychological consequences."

But Dr Siemionow's team argues that the possible gains are worth the risk involved. "Really, who has the right to decide about the patient's quality of life?" she asked. "It's very important not to kind of scare society ... We will do our best to help the patient."

The operation is expected to last up to 24 hours. A "skin envelope" from a donor is attached to the recipient using one or two pairs of veins and arteries on either side of the face. About 20 nerve endings would also be attached.

The recipient should look similar to the way they did before the operation, the Cleveland Clinic tells potential donors and patients. This is because the skin is grafted on to existing bone and muscle, which determine the shape of a face. Similarly, expressions and facial characteristics are determined by the brain, and are not the product of facial tissue.

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