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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Face transplants may be safer than thought, study says

Face transplants may be safer than previously thought, according to a new analysis of their risks, but the encouraging report will not change guidelines adopted by Brigham and Women's Hospital that limit who can have the rare procedure.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Louisville say in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery that an influential British report issued in 2004 overestimated the dangers by failing to take into account three important factors: newer drugs used to prevent rejection, the poorer health of kidney transplant recipients relative to face transplant patients and the different tissue composition of solid organs versus the skin.

The new analysis concludes that the risk of rejection for skin transplant patients, would be lower than predicted in 2004. Researchers based their conclusions on hand transplant patients, but said the results would be valid for both.

"I'm very encouraged that we see a lot less of rejection and even if it occurs, [doctors] were able to help them," Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of the Brigham program, said in an interview. "I think it's very interesting. In many ways it will correct the current estimate of morbidity associated with facial transplants."

The Brigham said last month it will perform partial face transplants only on patients already taking drugs to suppress their immune system because the drugs raise the risk of infection and cancer. That protocol will stay in place, said Pomahac, a plastic surgeon who is also the hospital's associate burn center director. He was not involved in the study by Cincinnati and Louisville researchers.

Pomahac cautioned that in the new study the number of hand transplants is small -- only 18 -- and the follow-up period may be too short for problems such as organ toxicity from taking even the newer immunosuppressant drugs to have shown up.

"I think every publication like this moves our knowledge a step forward and makes it more available ... as an option," he said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:40 PM
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