A few months ago, doctors performed an eye transplant during a partial face transplant on an American man. After six months, the transplanted eye has shown 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 never 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.
Even if I can’t see again, at least doctors have learned something to help the next person
Patient Aaron James (46)
The patient, Aaron James, a 46-year-old military veteran from Arkansas, underwent a 21-hour operation to replace half of his face. James survived a potentially fatal 7,200-volt electric shock while working as a power line worker in 2021, but it destroyed the left side of his face, his nose, his mouth and his left eye.
Initially, doctors only planned to include the eyeball as part of the face transplant, Rodriguez continues.
“If there was some kind of vision recovery that would be great, but the goal was to do the technical surgery and allow the eyeball to survive,” Rodriguez said.
Based on our virtual 3D model, surgeons could virtually prepare the operation and visualize different scenarios
Kristof Sehmke, spokesperson for Belgian company Materialise
Donor stem cells
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.
“Transplantation of a viable eyeball opens up many new possibilities,” Rodriguez said, even if vision is not restored in this case.
“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.
3D technologies from Belgian company
The 3D technologies of the Belgian company Materialize have provided important support to the surgical team at the American hospital NYU Langone Health. According to the company, the tools provided allowed the operation to be carried out faster and more accurately.
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. “During the eye transplant, part of the eye socket was also transplanted.”
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.
James, who can still see out of his right eye, knew he might not regain vision 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.
“I don’t think anyone can claim that he will see. But they also can’t say he won’t see,” Rodriguez said. “At the moment I think we are quite satisfied with the result we have been able to achieve with a technically very demanding operation.”
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