Face transplant recipients: New findings

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(CNN) — Dallas Wiens lost almost his entire face from burns when his head got too close to a high-voltage power line in 2008.

He underwent the first full facial transplant in the United States in 2011. His case is now teaching doctors about the biological changes that happen as a result of this procedure.

Researchers studied Wiens and two other patients, and found that blood vessels reorganize themselves in face transplant recipients. They presented their findings at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting Wednesday.

“The way that the blood vessels interact among the three patients was very similar, and so we actually have expected findings after face transplantation that have never been known before because the surgery is brand new,” said study co-author Dr. Frank J. Rybicki of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in an interview with RSNA.

The three patients maintain excellent blood flow, which is “the key element of viability of the facial tissues and the restoration of form and function to those individuals who otherwise had no face,” Rybicki said in a statement.

Researchers found that new blood vessel networks in these patients spread toward the ears and even farther behind the head. Additionally, large arteries and veins spread close to the jaw.

Doctors used technology called computed tomography angiography to closely examine the blood vessels in the faces of the transplant recipients. This technique is used before surgery to map the vessels out, and follow the vessels and the blood flow to the face to make sure it’s healthy, Rybicki said.

The new insights could improve planning for future surgeries in face transplant patients and assess potential complications for them. Increased knowledge about blood vessels in these patients may allow surgeons to shorten the amount of time necessary for operating, and reduce complications associated with the procedure, Rybicki said.

The procedure to give Wiens a new face took 15 hours.

Wednesday, he also participated in a press conference at RSNA, expressing his gratitude for the surgery. From his perspective and his family’s, his progress is further than they could have hoped for, he said.

“My entire story is a miracle,” he said.