US: 140 healthcare professionals worked for 21 hours as veteran underwent world’s first whole-eye and partial-face transplant in May

A 46-year-old military veteran from Arkansas, who survived a work-related high-voltage electrical accident, became the first person to undergo a whole-eye and partial-face transplant, which was performed by a a team of 140 healthcare professionals from NYU Langone Health.

The surgery included transplanting the entire left eye and a portion of the face from a single donor, making this the first-ever human whole-eye transplant in medical history and the only successful combined transplant case of its kind.

While it is still unknown whether he will regain sight, since the May 2023 procedure, the transplanted left eye has shown remarkable signs of health, including direct blood flow to the retina—the area at the back of the eye that receives light and sends images to the brain.

Although many questions remain in a case with no precedence, this groundbreaking achievement opens new possibilities for future advancements in vision therapies and related medical fields.

About the Procedure

The May 27 surgery lasted approximately 21 hours and included a team of more than 140 surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, led by Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS, director of the Face Transplant Program, the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery, and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone.

The recipient, Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, survived a deadly 7,200-volt electric shock while working as a high-voltage lineman in June 2021, when his face accidentally touched a live wire.

Despite multiple reconstructive surgeries, James had extensive injuries—including the loss of his left eye, his dominant left arm from above the elbow, his entire nose and lips, front teeth, left cheek area, and chin down to the bone.

The NYU Langone team was introduced to James’ case just two months after his injury, allowing guidance during the early-phase reconstructions with specialists at a Texas medical center where he was receiving care.

The possibility of a face transplant was discussed over the next year, and an initial evaluation for the transplant took place one year following the initial injury in June 2022.

When Texas surgeons were forced to remove James’ left eye after injury due to severe pain, Dr. Rodriguez and his team recommended that the optic nerve be cut as close to the eyeball as possible, to preserve as much nerve length to maximize reconstructive options, including the hope of a potential transplant later. This began the discussion on the possibility of including an eye with the face, something that has never been attempted before.

NYU Langone’s multidisciplinary team, Dr. Rodriguez, and the James family collectively made the decision to move ahead with a whole-eye transplant in combination with the face—understanding that at best it may only provide cosmetic benefits but leave many unknowns, the hospital said in a statement.

“Given Aaron needed a face transplant and will be taking immunosuppressive drugs regardless, the risk versus reward ratio of transplanting the eye was very low. Despite the eye being successfully transplanted, from a cosmetic standpoint, it would still be a remarkable achievement,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

This is the fifth face transplant performed under the leadership of Dr. Rodriguez and the first known whole-eye transplant in existence. “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,” added Dr. Rodriguez. “We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision.”

Once James’ case cleared all approvals within NYU Langone, he was officially listed as a potential recipient in February 2023 with the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the private, nonprofit organisation that manages the nation’s organ transplant system.

Locally, the effort to find a donor for James was led by LiveOnNY, the organ procurement organisation for the greater New York metropolitan area. In May 2023, just three months after James was listed for organ donation, coordinators from LiveOnNY identified a potential donor at another hospital in New York City. After a series of donor evaluations—including tests to determine if the eye was healthy and viable, led by Vaidehi S. Dedania, MD, retina specialist in the Department of Ophthalmology at NYU Langone—he was deemed an ideal donor. The total time from injury to transplant was a little under two years.

“The donor hero was a young man in his 30s who came from a family that strongly supports organ donation. He, in support by his family, generously donated tissues leading to this successful face and eye transplant, but also saved three other individuals between the ages of 20 and 70, donating his kidneys, liver, and pancreas,” said Leonard Achan, RN, MA, ANP, president and CEO of LiveOnNY. “LiveOnNY is proud to have collaborated with such a distinctive team of medical professionals at NYU Langone. This act of grace and innovative surgical procedure will have a multigenerational impact on all the recipients and their loved ones.”

Dr. Rodriguez, in collaboration with the team at NYU Langone’s Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center, part of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at Perlmutter Cancer Center, made the decision to combine the donor eye with donor bone marrow–derived adult stem cells. Bone marrow is a sponge-like tissue found inside the large bones in the body. Adult stem cells that are transplanted can work as a replacement therapy and natural repair crew, dividing again and again to create heathy cells that replace the damaged or dysfunctional elements.

“This is the first attempt of injecting adult stem cells into a human optic nerve during a transplant in the hopes of enhancing nerve regeneration,” said Samer Al-Homsi, MD, MBA, executive director of the Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center and professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone. “We chose to use CD34-positive stem cells which have been shown to harbor the potential to replace damaged cells and neuroprotective properties.”

During the transplant, bone marrow that was harvested from the donor’s vertebrae and processed preoperatively to isolate the CD34-positive stem cells was brought into the operating room (OR) and injected at the optic nerve connection of the recipient.

“We have now demonstrated that the procedure is safe and potentially efficacious, but we need time to determine if this step plays a role in enhancing the chance of sight restoration and if there’s anything further that can be done in the future to optimize the procedure,” added Dr. Al-Homsi.

Through collaboration with Depuy Synthes, the Orthopedics Company of Johnson & Johnson, and Materialise, state-of-the-art technology played a pivotal role in both presurgical planning and the actual surgery.

Cutting-edge three-dimensional (3D) computer surgical planning, along with patient-specific 3D cutting guides, enabled precise alignment of bones and optimal placement of implantable plates and screws. This meticulous approach fit the grafted partial face and whole left eye onto James.

While James’ vision in his native right eye is intact, the transplanted left eye does not currently have any sight. However, over the last six months, his eye has shown remarkable signs of health in other regards based on various clinical tests that measure outcome.

Dr. Rodriguez, Dr. Dedania, and a multidisciplinary team of world-renowned researcher scientists and clinicians—including leaders in neurology, ophthalmology, radiology, and neuroradiology—continue to convene and discuss questions that remain related to the eye and ways to measure any indications toward sight restoration.

“What we’re witnessing now is not something we ever expected or thought we’d see,” said Dr. Dedania, who runs regular tests for James in relation to his eyes. “The first step is having an intact eyeball, a lot of things could come after that; this is a first in the world, so we are really learning as we go.”

James will continue to have various clinical tests on the left transplanted eye, including electroretinography, a test that measures the electrical response of the retina to light.

“This is certainly one extraordinary step in the right direction,” said Steven L. Galetta, MD, renowned neuro-ophthalmologist and the Philip J. Moskowitz, MD, Professor and Chair of Neurology at NYU Langone. “We’re now crossing into the frontier of the central nervous system. Whatever happens next allows the opportunity for various methods to try to enhance the remaining aspects of the retina, whether it be through growth factors, stem cells, or a device that can pick up the signals and then bypass things along that optic nerve pathway. I’m looking forward to further advancements from this case in collaboration with the very talented minds that made it happen here at NYU Langone.”