- Vienna, Switzerland
- Tara Womersly
Doctors have carried out what is believed to be the first tongue transplant on a human being. The operation was carried out in Vienna on a 42-year old man with a malignant tumor.
Surgeons spent 14 hours on the operation – one team worked for four hours removing the tongue from the donor while a second team reconnected the tongue’s muscle tissue, nerve endings, arteries and veins into the recipient’s mouth. The team was led by Dr Rolf Ewers, of the cranio-maxillofacial surgery department at the General Hospital in Vienna. He said: “Because of the carcinoma, we needed to remove the tongue.
“We had been planning to do this transplant for some time but we needed both a patient and a donor. The patient was young, 42 years of age, and removing a tongue at that age is very cruel. But the cancer was at a very late stage, he was a heavy smoker.
“You only deal with about two or three cases a year where the whole tongue needs to be removed.” Dr. Ewers said that surgeons would normally remove the tongue and replace it with tissue from the small bowel, or duodenum. He said: “This meant that there was no muscle, just soft tissue coverage. But with the transplant, we hope that the tongue will be able to move and the patient will be able to speak and taste. If the operation is a success we will be planning it again.
“While we do not often get patients who need a whole tongue removed, we have between ten and 15 patients a year with oral cancer who need half their tongue removed, and we will certainly be planning to do the transplant for this. “The operation lasted 14 hours but that is not long in cranio-maxillofacial surgery, where we can be operating for up to 22 hours.”
The patient is said to be in a good condition but it is too early to say whether the operation has been a success.