In a pioneering surgery that gives hope to many people who have lost their eyes, surgeons in New York proceeded: they transplanted an entire eyeball to a patient, who, however, did not regain his sight.
About six months after the operation, the eye appears to be in very good condition and blood flow to the retina has been restored.
“We have made an important step forward and paved the way for the next chapter, in the restoration of vision,” said Dr. Eduardo Rodríguez, the head of the medical team.
The operation lasted 21 hours and was performed as part of a partial face transplant at NYU Langone Health University Hospital in New York. In addition to his left eye and orbit, surgeons transplanted the patient’s nose, lips and other facial tissues received from a donor.
The receiver, Aaron James, was seriously injured in a work accident in 2021 when his face touched a power line. Since he would have to take immunosuppressive drugs anyway to prevent his body from rejecting the transplants, he was an ideal candidate for an eye transplant as well.
Daniel Pelaise, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Miami, said the operation is a “remarkable success” on the way to “the ultimate goal, the restoration of vision.”
Surgeon Kia Washington, who has been involved in the field of eye transplants for 10 years, welcomed the development, explaining that many scientists thought it would never be possible to do this in humans.
Patient Aaron James will not regain sight in his left eye, but he is grateful for the cosmetic result. “I have no words to thank the donor and his family. They offered me a second chance, at a very difficult time for them. I hope my story will be an inspiration to people who have suffered serious facial and eye injuries,” he said.
James, whose right eye was uninjured and can see normally, has already returned home to Arkansas where he lives with his wife and daughter. He visits New York once a month for doctors to monitor his condition.
The main difficulty in transplanting the eye is restoring the optic nerve that carries information to the brain. The optic nerve is severed in both the donor and the recipient to perform the transplant. In the past, eyeball transplants have been performed on small animals, and in some cases vision has been restored, at least partially, Kia Washington explained. But for humans, many different techniques will have to be combined, such as genetic therapy, using stem cells and others.
Will it ever be possible to restore the sight of a man born blind? That prospect is still a long way off, but “I think yes, one day, in the next few decades, it will be possible,” Washington said.