London - In a medical first, a French surgeon says he has performed a second face transplant on the same patient - who is now doing well and even spent a recent weekend in Brittany.
Dr Laurent Lantieri of the Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris first transplanted a new face onto Jerome Hamon in 2010. But after getting ill in 2015, Hamon was given drugs that interfered with anti-rejection medicines he was taking for his face transplant.
Last November, complications led Lantieri to remove Hamon's transplanted face.
That left Hamon without a face, a condition that Lantieri described as "the walking dead." Hamon had no eyelids, no ears, no skin and could not speak or eat. He had limited hearing and could express himself by turning his head slightly, in addition to writing a little.
"If you have no skin, you have infections," Lantieri said. "We were very concerned about the possibility of a new rejection."
In January, when a face donor became available, Lantieri and his team performed a second face transplant on Hamon.
"For a man who went through all this, which is like going through a nuclear war, he's doing fine," Lantieri said. He added that Hamon is now being monitored like any other face transplant patient.
"I'm 43. The donor was 22. So I've become 20 years younger," Hamon joked on French television.
Other doctors said the procedure wasn't entirely unexpected.
"The more we see what's happening with (face transplant) patients, the more we have to accept that chronic rejection is a reality," said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac of Harvard University, who has done face transplants on patients in the U.S. "Face transplants will become essentially non-functional, distorted and that may be a good time to consider re-transplanting."
Pomahac said it's still unknown how long face transplants might last, but guessed they might be similar to kidneys, which generally last about 10 to 15 years.
"Maybe some patients will get lucky and their faces will last longer. But it will probably be more common that some will have to be replaced," he said, noting there are still many unknowns about when chronic rejection might occur.
Pomahac applauded the French team for proving that doing subsequent face transplants was not impossible. He said as such surgeries become more common, they might be expanded to helping people with lesser deformities. Until now, the face transplant operation has only been conducted on people with severe facial disfigurements.
Lantieri said he and his team would soon publish their findings in a medical journal and that he hoped cases like Hamon would remain the exception.
"The other patients I'm following, some have had some alteration of their transplant over time, but they are doing fine," he said. "I hope not to do any future transplants like this."