Kaohsiung Chang Gung Memorial Hospital said on Tuesday that it has secured Department of Health (DOH) approval to conduct experimental hand transplants.
Kuo Yao-jen (郭耀仁), director of the hospital’s surgical department, said the hospital planned to perform five such transplants over the next five years.
The topic of limb transplants drew attention after The Associated Press (AP) reported that the first US soldier to survive losing all four limbs in the Iraq War had received a double arm transplant.
The 13-hour operation was led by Taiwan-born Andrew Lee (李為平), who is plastic surgery chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, AP reported.
The operation, carried out on Dec. 18 last year, is the seventh double hand or double arm transplant to be accomplished in the US, the report said.
Lee was in charge of three of those earlier operations when he previously worked at the University of Pittsburgh, including, in 2010, the only above-elbow transplant, which was the first to have been accomplished at the time, the report said.
Kuo said he had traveled to the US to study limb transplants under Lee’s tutelage.
“After nearly 10 years of preparations, our hospital has finally secured the green light from the Department of Health to conduct experimental hand transplant surgery,” Kuo said.
Nevertheless, Kuo said, the anti-rejection drug the hospital had planned to use in such surgery has not been licensed in Taiwan.
“As a result, we will have to try other anti-rejection drugs,” Kuo said, adding that the hospital is scheduled to perform the country’s first experimental hand transplant within a year.
Kuo said that about 53 people around the world have received single or double hand transplants and that only three of them have had to have the donated hands removed because of transplant failure.
Wei Fu-chuan (魏福全), dean of Chang Gung University’s College of Medicine, who is also an Academia Sinica academician, said that limb transplants are not especially difficult.
“The real challenge lies in rejection control,” Wei said, adding that Lee has pioneered novel immune suppression technology that has allowed his patients to take just one anti-rejection drug instead of the combination treatments most transplant patients receive.
Another challenge is local people’s reluctance to donate organs, including limbs, he added.
The new arms “already move a little,” tweeted Brendan Marrocco, who was injured by a roadside bomb in 2009.
The 26-year-old also received bone marrow from the same dead donor who supplied his new arms.
The novel approach was aimed at helping his body accept the new limbs with minimal medication to prevent rejection, the report said.
Lee told AP in an interview that Marrocco’s “was the most complicated one” so far.
“It will take more than a year to know how fully Marrocco will be able to use the new arms,” said Lee, who moved to the US along with his family at the age of 15.
“The maximum speed is an inch a month for nerve regeneration,” Lee said. “We are easily looking at a couple years until the full extent of recovery is known,” he added.
Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital Deputy Superintendent Cheng Ming-hui, who is a friend of Lee, said Lee maintained close ties with the local medical community and often came to Taiwan to attend seminars or give lectures.
Cheng said a microsurgery team at his hospital has completed experimental limb transplants on animals and will apply for DOH approval to begin experimental operations on humans.
According to the AP report, Lee has received funding for his work from the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a cooperative research network of top hospitals and universities around the nation that the government formed about five years ago.
With government money, he and several other plastic surgeons around the country are also preparing to carry out more face transplants, possibly using the new minimal immune suppression approach.