In a groundbreaking medical achievement, surgeons have successfully performed the world's first eyeball transplant. The recipient, Aaron James, underwent a 21-hour-long surgical procedure led by Eduardo Rodriguez and his team at NYU Langone Health in New York. This procedure not only included the eye transplant but also a partial face transplant. James, a 46-year-old power line worker from Arkansas, had suffered severe injuries in June 2021 after a 7200-volt shock. As a result, he lost most of the left side of his face, including his left eye and much of his left arm.
The surgery involved transferring the nose, lips, and bone segments from a deceased donor to James, along with most of the tissue beneath the right eye. Additionally, the entire left eye, including the eyelids, eyebrows, and eye socket, was transplanted. This posed a significant challenge as the intricate network of blood vessels surrounding the eyeball had to be extracted. Unlike other facial features, the eye receives blood directly from the brain region behind it. To access these vessels, the surgeons partially removed the donor's skull.
To avoid operating near James's brain, the surgeons connected the vessels to others in the donor's face. This allowed them to re-establish blood flow to the eye and bypass the brain. The optic nerve, responsible for transmitting visual information to the brain, was also addressed. The surgeons preserved as much of the donor optic nerve's length as possible and injected stem cells from the donor's bone marrow to stimulate nerve growth.
Five months after the surgery, James's new eyeball appears to be healthy. It has adequate blood flow, internal fluid pressure, and can produce tears. However, it is uncertain if James will regain his sight using the new eye. While some nerve cells critical for vision are still alive, Rodriguez acknowledges that James may never be able to see through the transplanted eye.
Despite this uncertainty, the success of the surgery is notable. James can now eat and breathe on his own, and the operation has given him another chance at a more normal life. Rodriguez emphasizes the significance of the achievement and the absence of complications during the procedure. However, he cautions against raising expectations beyond what is currently technically feasible.
This groundbreaking eyeball transplant represents a significant step towards potentially restoring vision in people who have experienced severe eye injuries. While the procedure's success is evident in James's improved quality of life, the extent of his visual recovery remains uncertain.