Feature Archive

Face Transplants Face Reality

Experts are wary as some surgeons seek to attempt a face transplant -- a procedure that probably isn't what you think it is.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Face transplants soon will be a reality. But they aren't what you think they are.

In the movies, a character goes to the doctor and emerges the next day with someone else's face. This leads to complications. Real-life face transplants won't be anything like this. And the real-life risks may be far more serious, says Steven J. Pearlman, MD, president-elect of the American Academy of Facial, Plastic, and Reconstructive Surgery.

"This is nothing at all like the illusion -- or delusion -- of swapping a face with someone else's," Pearlman tells WebMD. "It will never be a cosmetic procedure. The operation itself is a potentially fatal procedure because of the risk of rejection, life-long immune suppression, and the potential for life-threatening infections even if there is no graft rejection."

Face Transplant: The Reality

Face transplants would work much like other organ transplants. The family of a deceased person would donate that person's face to a needy patient. But after the transplant, the recipient would not look like the donor.

Why? The transplanted material would be a kind of a soft mask made of skin and soft tissue. Its final shape would depend on the bone structure of the recipient. That means that the person who got the transplant would have a brand-new face. It would not look like the face of the donor. It would not look like the recipient's old face, either.