Yesterday the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM) announced most extensive full face transplant completed to date, including both jaws, teeth, and tongue. In a marathon 36-hour operation the surgical team led by Professor Eduardo Rodriguez were able to transplant a face of an anonymous donor onto their patient Richard Lee Norris, who had been injured in a gun accident 15 years ago. The operation was the culmination of years of clinical and animal research undertaken at UMM under the leadership of Professor Stephen Bartlett, and funded by the Department of Defense and Office of Naval Research due to its potential to help war veterans who have received serious facial injuries.
This successful operation, termed a vascularized composite allograft, was made possible not only by the selflessness of the family of the anonymous donor, but also by the years of animal research undertaken by Professors Rodriguez and Bartlett and colleagues. For example, a key factor in the success of this operation was that they transplanted high amounts of vascularized bone marrow (VBM), which came inside the transplanted jaw, a technique that was developed by the team after observing that tissue rejection following composite tissue allotransplantation in a cynomolgus monkeys was greatly reduced when VBM was included in the transplant. This discovery will also help to reduce the amount of immunosuppression that Mr. Norris and future patients require following facial transplants.
Of course this is far from the first contribution that animal research has made to transplant surgery, from the development of the techniques of kidney transplant through research in dogs by Joseph Murray and colleagues, to the careful experiments in dogs conducted by Norman Schumway and Richard Lower that led to the first successful heart transplants, to the studies in mice and rats that identified the immunosuppressive properties of the drug cyclosporin that transformed the transplantation field in the 1980’s, animal research has made a crucial contribution to this field. Indeed, in his 1990 Nobel Lecture Edward Donnall Thomas stressed the importance of animal research to his Nobel prize winning discoveries concerning bone marrow transplantation.
Finally, it should be noted that marrow grafting could not have reached clinical application without animal research, first in inbred rodents and then in outbred species, particularly the dog.”
Animal research continues to make key contributions to transplant science, and we have had several opportunities to discuss its role in the development of lab-engineered tissues for transplant, such as the artificial bladder, on this blog.
Yesterday’s news from the University of Maryland is another reminder that animal research is still crucial to advances in transplant surgery. It is also worth remembering that when animal rights groups attack animal research conducted by the Department of Defense, it is work such as that which led to yesterday’s breakthrough that they are attacking.