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World's First Partial Face Transplant: Creating a Hybrid Face

This week's first-ever face transplant is being criticized as well as praised.

This week, a group of doctors from France performed the first-ever face transplant. They grafted a nose, lips and chin onto a 38-year-old woman, whose face was disfigured from a dog attack.

Face transplant surgery is a new field. It involves taking facial tissue from a living, but brain-dead donor, and transplanting it to the patient.

Nadey Hakim is president of the International College of Surgeons in London. He says the procedure was a groundbreaking operation. "It is significant because if it does work it will open a lot of avenues for many patients who have lost their face, either due to burns, or even cancer of parts of the face."

Doctors say the patient will neither look like her donor, nor like herself before the attack. Instead, she will have a "hybrid" face. But even if the surgery turns out to be successful in the short-term, experts say there could be medical complications in the future, because, like all transplants, this one could be rejected by the body, says facial surgeon Iain Hutchinson. Transplant patients take drugs to suppress the rejection.

"What happens in the meantime, if the immuno-suppressant drugs don't work, and the face transplant is rejected? The patient may well be worse off than they were before the transplant."

The operation was led by the same surgeons that performed a hand transplant in 1998, and the world's first double forearm transplant in 2000. The group is getting a lot of criticism from a French government ethics panel, because it did not try to give the woman normal, reconstructive surgery before performing the transplant.

Some doctors say the ethics of the surgery are something to consider.

"Whenever someone passes on, you don't have a photo of their kidney, or heart, on their mantel, you have a photo of their face. And if you are going to be donating that face, and disfiguring the face of the loved one immediately after a loss, that is psychologically pretty challenging," said one doctor.

This procedure was only a partial face transplant. Surgeons in the U.S. hope to perform a full face transplant within the year.