How Face Transplants Work

Chinese surgeons practiced face transplants on rabbits before moving on to humans.
Chinese surgeons practiced face transplants on rabbits before moving on to humans.
China Photos/Getty Images

It's the only part of your body that allows you to use all five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. It's also the window that lets everyone around you know how you are feeling -- if you're contented, sad, angry or confused. Your face is the image you present to the world.

What would happen if your face were no longer there? It seems impossible to contemplate how that could happen, but it does, in rare cases. People who have been severely burned, who have cancer or who have been attacked by animals have lost part -- or all -- of the skin and underlying tissue on their faces. They have become so disfigured that they often don't want to leave their homes for fear that they will be harassed or shunned.

­­­­­In the past the only ­way t­o fix severe facial disfigurement was with skin grafts -- taking pieces of healthy skin from elsewhere on the body or from a cadaver and placing them over the missing parts of the face. But grafts from the body don't look or work like the skin on the face, and they can't fully restore appearance or movement.

­There is another way to fix severe damage to the face, though. Advanced medical technologies are enabling doctors to transplant part, or all, of a face from a donor. The result looks and acts far more realistic than skin grafts, but the face transplant isn't without issues -- both medical and ethical.

­In this article, we'll look at how face transplants are performed, meet a few people whose lives have been transformed by them and find out why some doctors believe face transplants should never be done.

­First, let's learn how transplant technology came into being.