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Research Update: First Whole-Eye Transplant Opens New Possibilities for Advances in Vision Therapies

Surgeons from NYU Langone Health have performed “the world’s first-ever human whole-eye transplant in medical history” for a 46 year-old military Veteran from Arkansas. A work-related accident involving high-voltage power lines had destroyed most of Aaron James’ face and one of his eyes. Although it is still not known whether he will regain sight, since the procedure in May the transplanted left eye has shown signs of health, including blood flow directly to the light-sensing retina at the back of the eye. The surgery also included a face transplant, marking the 19th such procedure in the U.S. Eduardo Rodriguez, MD, DDS, NYU’s plastic surgery chief, who led the transplant team, acknowledged how James’ motivation and resilience contributed to the procedure. “’Aaron has been extremely motivated to regain the function and independence he lost after his injury. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect patient.’” While thousands of corneal transplants occur each year, successful whole-eye transplantation has “remained elusive due to the complex nature of the eye and the challenges associated with nerve regeneration, immune rejection, and retinal blood flow.” For the whole-eye transplant to restore vision, the connections between the optic nerve and the brain need to be reestablished, which poses a significant challenge. The optic nerve is responsible for conveying visual information to the brain. During the operation, surgeons connected a donated optic nerve to the remnants of the original, injecting stem cells from the donor to spur its repair. Research team members are continuing to consider and discuss questions that remain related to measuring “any indications toward sight restoration.” As pointed out by Dr. Rodriguez, “’The mere fact that we’ve accomplished the first successful whole-eye transplant with a face is a tremendous feat many have long thought was not possible.” He further explained that “’We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision.’” For more information about this landmark procedure, read the NewsHub article reporting that NYU Langone Health Performs World’s First Whole-Eye and Partial Face Transplant. Additional details are available from the Associated Press (AP) report that Surgeons have performed the world’s first eye transplant and The Washington Post article reporting that a Man receives the first eye transplant plus a new face. It’s a step toward one day restoring sight.