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World's first full face transplant done in Spain

MADRID - A team of surgeons has carried out the world's first full-face transplant on a young Spanish farmer unable to breathe or eat on his own since accidentally shooting himself in the face five years ago.

It was the most extensive operation yet and the 11th known face transplant worldwide.

During the 24-hour surgery, doctors lifted an entire face, including jaw, nose, cheekbones, muscles, teeth and eyelids, and placed it masklike onto the man, Dr. Joan Pere Barret, who headed the 30-member surgical team, told The Associated Press on Friday.

Transplant experts hailed the surgery, carried out late last month at Barcelona's Vall d'Hebron Hospital, as a significant advance.

"It is a breakthrough. They are pushing the envelope and I am very happy for them," said Dr. Thomas Romo, chief of facial and reconstructive surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.

The Spanish patient, who was not identified, now has a completely new face from his hairline down and only one visible scar, which looks like a wrinkle running across his neck, Barret said.

The patient, 30, cannot yet speak, eat or smile, but he can see and swallow saliva, Barret said. He is expected to be able to eat and breathe on his own in about a week. "If you look him in the face, you see a normal person," Barret said.

The 2005 accident, in which the man shot himself with a shotgun, essentially destroyed his face from the eye sockets down, although his eyes and eyesight were unaffected.

Face transplants in the real world have gained acceptance since the first partial transplant almost five years ago in France. There have been 10 partial transplants worldwide, including in the United States, China and elsewhere in Spain, but this is the first full face transplant, Barret said.

Barret would give no details about the donor except to say that doctors try to choose donors of similar weight, height, facial measurements and skin tone as the recipient.

As in earlier operations, the Spanish patient had undergone psychiatric tests to determine if he would be able to confront having a totally new face, the hospital said. Still, rejection is a possibility whenever someone receives an organ or cells from someone else because the body regards this as foreign tissue.