Brigham and Women’s Screening Patients for Leg Transplants

The procedure has never been performed in the United States.


The facial transplant surgery. Photo by lightchaser photography, courtesy of Brigham and Women’s

Brigham and Women’s Hospital performed a full facial transplant surgery in February, a procedure that has been done only five times in the hospital’s history. They also performed a double-hand transplant in 2011. So if you can transplant faces and hands, why not legs? The operations are risky and rare, but now Brigham and Women’s is screening patients for leg transplants, a surgery the hospital approved in February—and one that experts say has only been done twice worldwide.

The procedure would, for now, be reserved for double amputees, since those who have only lost one leg can usually function well with a prosthetic limb. A transplant, according to a Boston Globe article, would be worthwhile since the limb would not need to be removed at any point (such as for showering) and would allow patients to regain feeling, in addition to the obvious lifestyle benefits. Plus, as Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at the hospital, says in the Globe article, “If we can get those people to walk, that is a big deal.”

As is to be expected with such a groundbreaking surgery, there are some obstacles. Doctors estimate that the recovery period could be as long as two years, and patients would have to take drugs to prevent their bodies from rejecting the donor tissue for the rest of their lives, as most transplant patients have to do. Further, it could be difficult to find patients and donors who are a perfect match for the surgery, and the Globe reports that potential patients would have to undergo extensive physical and mental observation and first try prosthesis. The Globe article quotes Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine about the pros and cons of the operation:

But “if we are going to do a transplant, we want to be better than prostheses,” he said. That is “a higher hurdle to overcome” for leg transplants than for arm transplants, he added, because leg prostheses are more advanced than those for arms.

Nonetheless, the surgery could be life-changing if it is effective, and research shows that many people are willing to take on the risks. The Amputee Coalition surveyed its members who had lost legs, and 43 percent of respondents said they would be interested in the surgery. And we can’t help but think that, given how many victims of last month’s bombing lost legs, this breakthrough couldn’t have come at a better time, or in a better place.