A few months ago, doctors performed an eye transplant during a partial face transplant on an American man. After six months, the transplanted eye shows important signs of health, such as properly functioning blood vessels and a beautiful-looking retina.
“The mere fact that we have transplanted an eye is a huge step forward. Something that has been thought about for centuries, but has never been implemented,” says Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who led the operation. Until now, doctors have only been able to transplant the cornea, the clear front layer of the eye.
The patient, Aaron James, is a 46-year-old military veteran from Arkansas, USA. James survived a potentially fatal 7,200-volt electric shock two years ago while working as a power line worker. This destroyed the left side of his face, his nose, his mouth and his left eye.
During an operation that took 21 hours, half of his face was replaced. Initially, the doctors only planned to include the eyeball as part of the face transplant. “If there was some kind of vision recovery, that would be great,” says Rodriguez. “But the goal was to perform the technical operation and allow the eyeball to survive.”
To promote healing of the connection between the donor’s and recipient’s optic nerves, surgeons took adult stem cells from the donor’s bone marrow and injected them into the optic nerve during the transplant, hoping they would replace damaged cells and heal the nerve. would protect.
Even if vision is not restored in this case, “transplantation of a viable eyeball opens up many new possibilities,” Rodriguez said. “If we can collaborate with other scientists who are working on other methods to restore vision or return images to the visual cortex, I think we are one step closer,” Rodriguez said hopefully.
James knew he might not regain the sight in the transplanted eye, but he didn’t mind. The doctors “never expected it to work and they told me that from the beginning,” James said. “I told them, ‘even if I can’t see… maybe you can at least learn something to help the next person.’ Hopefully this will open a new path.”
Dr. Rodriguez has not ruled out the possibility that James could still regain vision in the transplanted eye. “At the moment I think we are quite satisfied with the result we have been able to achieve with a technically very demanding operation.”
The Belgian company Materialize also contributed to the successful transplant. The company created a virtual 3D planning of the operation and 3D printed medical devices tailored to the donor and patient. The tools provided allowed the operation to be carried out faster and more accurately, according to the company.
For example, the company designed a virtual 3D model based on CT scans. “Surgeons were able to prepare the operation virtually and visualize different scenarios,” says spokesperson Kristof Sehmke.
Several cutting instruments were also used during the operation, which were printed completely to the size of the donor and the patient. “These cutting instruments ensure that the bone fragments can be cut out faster and with extreme precision, like a puzzle piece,” says Shemke.
Materialize, headquartered in Leuven, is one of the oldest 3D printing companies in the world. The company prints various products for hospitals at home and abroad, among others.