Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Doctors perform a double arm transplant

War can leave devastating scars on the bodies of soldiers, and the loss of arms and legs is frequent. As we are unable to regrow organs or limbs, doctors have resorted to transplants from donors. Getting an arm or leg to function again, however, is extremely difficult. Transplanted limbs need to be connected to the brain in order for the recipient to be able to use it. Doctors from the John Hopkins Hospital attempted to give two new arms to an Iraqi war veteran, an operation that has only been attempted a couple of times. The recipient, a 26-year-old, says he can already able to feel his 'new' arms a little bit.

According to the surgeons that operated on the 26-year old Brendan Marrocco, he was the most complicated case ever performed when it comes to double hand or arm transplantation. Being an already rare operation, Marrocco's case was complicated by the fact that he was severely injured in Iraq, losing both arms and legs. The transplanted arms were derived from a deceased donor, and included the bone marrow which is responsible for the creation of blood cells. This was previously shown to counter rejection of the transplanted limbs by the body.

A limb transplantation is more than just sowing an arm to the rest of the body. For movement and feeling it is necessary that muscles and nerves are connected properly, which is not an easy feat.  However, the doctors have found a way to let the body do all the work: according to them, nerves will regrow at a rate of one inch per month, eventually setting up a neural connection that is needed for the brain to 'operate' the arm. It remains unclear, however, to what extent Marrocco will be able to 'instruct' his arm to instigate movement.

Before the transplanted arms can be anywhere close to useful, Marrocco will need to undergo a long recovery process. Only in a couple of years it will become clear whether the operation has been a success. However, so far the body seems not to have rejected the transplanted limbs, which is already an important step in the right direction.

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