Nation's first face transplant patient thrives years later

Imaging reveals new network of blood vessels, connected tissue

Physicians at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting this week got a firsthand look at how the nation's first full face transplant patient is growing into his new appearance—nearly three years after the procedure.

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Dallas Wiens, the first U.S. man to get a full face transplant, spoke at the conference. Wiens' face was burned off in 2008 when his head hit a high voltage wire. After undergoing life-saving surgery, Wiens lived for two years with no facial features and just a two-inch slit for a mouth. In March 2011, he received a full face transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

A face transplant operation can take up to 30 hours, during which surgeons attach spaghetti-thin arteries in the patients' existing tissue to the transplant face, according to Brigham radiologist Frank Rybicki. Medical imaging shows that new blood vessel networks have formed—connecting Wiens' existing tissue with the donor skin. Doctors call the phenomenon "neovascularization."

Globally, fewer than 30 such face transplants have been attempted since the first in 2005, according to Branko Bojovich, who was involved in performing a 2012 face transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He added that the Brigham success is "very reassuring" for future patients.

"We're assuming that these patients will hopefully go on to live productive and long lives," Bojovich said.

That appears to be true for Wiens, who said his "entire life is a miracle." Wiens met his wife in a support group for burn patients; they were wed in March of this year (Tanner, AP/U-T San Diego, 12/4).

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