In a first-of-its-kind surgery, doctors announced they had transplanted an entire eyeball into an Arkansas man who had suffered a high-voltage accident at work, according to New York University Langone Health, where the procedure was performed in May.
Though the man has yet to regain vision in the transplanted left eyeball, doctors said they are encouraged by the results because blood is flowing to the retina, the back of the eye that converts incoming light into an electrical signal that is then sent to the brain so you can see images.
Besides the eyeball, the patient, 46-year-old Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, also received a partial face transplant and an infusion of donor stem cells to the optic nerve during the more than 20-hour surgery.
"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," said the presiding surgeon and the director of the center's face transplant program Eduardo D. Rodriguez in a statement. "We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision."
James had suffered the loss of his eye and parts of his face in 2021 during the course of his work as an electrical lineman, according to the medical center. His face brushed against a live wire and a massive jolt of 7,200 volts of electricity went through his body. In the horrific accident, he lost his lips, nose, parts of his left arm, front teeth, left cheek and chin. Surgeons in Texas had to remove his left eyeball because the area was in great pain.
In anticipation of a possible face and eyeball transplant, the team at NYU Langone asked that the surgeons cut James' optic nerve as close as possible to where it connected to his left eyeball.
Earlier this year, James was put on an organ transplant list in hopes of getting a partial face and whole eyeball transplant. In May, specialists identified an organ donor who provided parts of his face and adult stem cells for the highly experimental procedure.
Doctors wanted to use the donor's adult stem cells and inject them into James' optic nerve because they could connect and repair any damaged parts. Using stem cells to restore vision is not unheard of. Doctors in Boston have been able to infuse stem cells from a patient's healthy eye and inject them into a damaged eye, restoring some vision in the patient.
But transplanting an eyeball and using stem cells to regenerate any growth in the optic nerve is an entirely new ballgame. While this is a first-of-its-kind experiment and James' vision has yet to be restored, it's an encouraging sign that his eye seems "healthy," as the doctors put it.
And most importantly, James' surgery just may pave the way to a future in which people who have suffered catastrophic eye injuries can see again.
More on organ transplants: Man Is Doing Well With Implanted Pig Heart, Doctors Say
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