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Face transplants not just science fiction

Doctor: Procedure technically feasible but ethically ambiguous

Doctor: Procedure technically feasible but ethically ambiguous

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CNN's Robyn Curnow reports on the possibility that a full face transplant may be medically possible within a year.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Although it sounds like a plot from a science-fiction movie, surgeons in Britain say they will be able to carry out the first full facial transplant within a year.

New microsurgical devices and better anti-rejection drugs have made possible the transplanting of skin, muscle and bone from a dead person to another -- in particular, those who suffer facial deformities.

But the main roadblock to the procedure may be the ethical questions surrounding the issue.

British plastic surgeon Dr. Peter Butler from London's Royal Free Hospital called for a debate on the ethics of face transplants.

"I think it is the moral and ethical problems that we face, and that's where there needs to be full and frank public debate, and that's where I would like to raise the issues," Butler said.

This week, the British Association of Plastic Surgeons will debate the pioneering proposals, which could give new skin, bone, nose, chin, lips and ears from deceased donors to patients disfigured by accidents, burns or cancer.

One possible procedure would use a "skin envelope" of fat, skin and blood vessels transplanted onto existing bone, leaving patients with many of their own features, according to Reuters. A more complex procedure would transplant bone as well, so the patient might end up resembling the donor, Reuters says.

But will people be willing to donate their faces when they die, even if the transplanted face will most likely look different on the new owner?

Butler said that few were likely according to his informal survey of medical workers and the public.

But full or partial face transplants would help people such as Christine Piff. Piff, who suffered from a rare facial cancer in the past, runs a charity called Let's Face It and counsels burn, cancer and accident victims. Many of these people, she said, would be willing to have someone else's skin, bone and muscle transplanted onto their faces.

"If they could have this kind of surgery that could give them their lives back or restore some sense of quality of life, then surely that's a good thing?" Piff said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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