Monday, September 19, 2005

Great for science fiction, dubious for reality

This story on BBC News has all the fodder of good horror/science fiction. Doctors performing ground-breaking surgery on corpses, looking for living victims to test their art. People willing to shed their damaged visage in order to get a new face - a dead man's face.

Apparently, doctors have been working on the viability of face transplants for awhile, performing the surgeries on bodies donated for medical study. It seems they are now ready to test their theories on a live patient volunteer - whom they will pick from a group of 5 men and 7 women, all who suffer severe disfigurement due to accident or disease. The chances for success are 50%, and the patient will have endure not only the physical effects of the transplant, but the psychological effects of having a new face - one that will neither look like the patient or the donor, apparently.

Computer modelling suggests the new face would neither resemble the donor nor recipient's pre-injury self.

The face should take on more of the characteristics of the skeleton of the recipient than the soft tissues of the donor.

I have to admit when I first read this story, it made my skin crawl a bit. There is something that has always bothered me about removing the skin from the face, and the idea of a face transplant is just, well, something you'd expect to find in a movie, but not real life. And some scientists claim that there just hasn't been enough research to go forward with a living transplant.

The working party said it was not against facial transplants in theory, saying they could offer a major breakthrough in restoration of quality of life to those whose faces have been destroyed by accidents or disease.

But it cautioned: "Until there is further research and the prospect of better control of these complications, it would be unwise to proceed with human facial transplantation."

While I agree that, in the end, being able to do something like this will undoubtedly be beneficial to patients who have suffered severe disfigurement, it seems like the chances of success are too low, and the potential problems too high to be ready for real life testing of the surgery right now. And what are the potential applications? High stakes plastic surgery for the hopelessly vain? Identity theft?

Regardless, I hope that the surgery does go well and that it is a success for both the researchers and the patient. Still, I have the feeling I'd rather keep my science fiction as fiction, at least for now.


hobbes said...

ugh - too creepy. What happens if your new face falls off?

melusina said...

Well, hopefully it won't get stepped on or run over...then they just tape it back on? =p