Friday, January 6, 2012

Regulation, War, and Face Transplants

These proposed regulations from the US Department of Health and Human Services would subject vascularized composite allographs (VCA) to the rules currently governing solid organ procurement and transplantation. VCA involves transplanting multiple tissue-types as a single functional unit. The highest-profile VCA procedures are face and hand transplants, but VCA procedures around the world have included limb transplants, abdominal wall transplants, finger transplants, and transplants of penises and uteruses. What the procedures have in common is the need for re-vascularization via surgical connection of blood vessels to the transplanted tissue. Bringing these procedures under the existing organ procurement and transplantation rules will rationalize the supply and distribution of transplantable tissue, and permit medical teams to find better matches for their patients.

Recent successes in face-transplantation have captured a great deal of media attention. But another reason for this move is the medical aftermath of the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,000 military personnel have lost an arm or a leg in these conflicts; one fifth of those have lost two or more limbs. In the summer of 2010 there were an estimated 200 soldiers who might be eligible for partial or full face transplant, and an additional 50 who could use hand or forearm transplants. The US Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs have been leading funders of research on limb and face transplantation. The proposed regulation of VCA is in part aimed at permitting more veterans to get the procedures they need, with the best available material.

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