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Just How Safe Are Facial Transplants? Death Of Isabelle Dinoire Accentuates Concerns

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The first-ever person to have a face transplant, Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire, has died at the age of 49, French doctors say. Now, her death has accentuated concerns about the safety of a procedure that was once unheard of a little over a decade ago.

The Amiens University Hospital in northern France said in a statement Tuesday that Dinoire died in April after a long illness. The hospital didn't release any further details, and it remains unclear if her illness — and subsequent death — was related to the transplant. 

Talking to the BBC in 2009, Dinoire revealed that she got the revolutionary transplant in 2005 after her face was disfigured by her pet dog. The incident was the result of her personal problems that led her to try and commit suicide.

According to divorced mother of two, she "took some drugs to forget [her problems]" and passed out due to an overdose. When she awoke, she found herself in a pool of her own blood, since her dog found her unconscious and tried to wake her up by gnawing at her face.

It was clear that she would need medical attention due to the injuries to her mouth, nose and chin, however, the extent of those injuries was actually so severe that her doctors opted to go for a ground-breaking face transplant, rather than a traditional facial reconstruction procedure.

At the time, her operation was deemed "an unquestionable surgical success," with Dr. Jean-Paul Meningaud, head of the reconstructive surgery department at the Henri Mondor Hospital south of Paris, saying that the medical community learned from her experience. 

However, that sentiment, as well as the general outlook toward the procedure, has changed quite a bit since then.

From the get-go, facial transplants have been a tricky affair. Yes, they provide the recipient with the chance to get a new face in case something unfortunate happens, but the medication that recipients must take in order for their body to accept the new organs can cause other illnesses and have severe side-effects.

In the case of Dinoire, that actually was the case.

According to Le Figaro newspaper, which first reported Dinoire's death Tuesday, she had suffered two cancers linked to the transplant and lost partial use of her transplanted lips last year.

"The results were very good in the medium term, but the long-term results were not so good," Meningaud said

In fact, those complications are shared among many face transplant recipients, who, according to Meningaud, are having more difficulty with anti-rejection medication than doctors initially predicted, and are requiring more follow-up surgery. 

Now, in the wake of Dinoire's death, Meninguad is arguing for suspending the procedures so that the medical community can assess whether the long-term benefits are worth the physical and psychological toll they take on patients.

This is an important consideration, too. Prior to 2005, there were no facial transplants. Since then, there have been nearly 40. 

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