Eye transplant: US veteran gets world's first complete eye transplant after voltage accident
The whole eye transplant took 21 hours but it is unsure if he will get back his vision
A US veteran has received the world's transplant of an entire human eye, although it is not certain he will regain vision. Surgeons performed the operation after an accident with high-voltage power lines had destroyed most of Aaron James’ face and one eye - but his right eye still works.
Surgeons at NYU Langone Health hoped replacing the missing one would yield better cosmetic results for his new face, by supporting the transplanted eye socket and lid.
Mr James, 46, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, is recovering well from the dual transplant last May and the donated eye looks remarkably healthy. Mr James told the Associated Press as doctors examined his progress recently: “It feels good. I still don’t have any movement in it yet. My eyelid, I can’t blink yet. But I’m getting sensation now. You got to start somewhere, there’s got to be a first person somewhere. Maybe you’ll learn something from it that will help the next person.”
On 27 May this year, he underwent a rare partial face transplant in addition to the eye transplant - which involved more than 140 healthcare professionals and took 21 hours of surgery.
Today, transplants of the cornea – the clear tissue in front of the eye – are common to treat certain types of vision loss but transplanting the whole eye: the eyeball, its blood supply and the critical optic nerve that must connect it to the brain; is considered a massive step in the quest to cure blindness. Whatever happens next, Mr James’ surgery offers scientists an unprecedented window into how the human eye tries to heal.
“We’re not claiming that we are going to restore sight,” said Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, NYU’s plastic surgery chief, who led the transplant. "But there’s no doubt in my mind we are one step closer.”
Some specialists had feared the eye would quickly shrivel like a raisin. Instead, when Rodriguez propped open Mr James’ left eyelid last month, the donated hazel-coloured eye was as plump and full of fluid as his own blue eye, and doctors see good blood flow and no sign of rejection.
Now researchers have begun analysing scans of Mr James’ brain that detected some puzzling signals from that all-important but injured optic nerve. One scientist who has long studied how to make eye transplants a reality called the surgery exciting.
“It’s an amazing validation” of animal experiments that have kept transplanted eyes alive, said Dr Jeffrey Goldberg, chair of ophthalmology at Stanford University.
Mr James was working for a power line company in June 2021 when he was shocked by a live wire. He nearly died. He lost his left arm, requiring a prosthetic. His damaged left eye was so painful it had to be removed. He has called the eye transplant "life changing" and says he is "grateful beyond words" to the donor and their family for making the surgery possible.