In a medical first, surgeons at NYU Langone Health have performed a whole-eye transplant on a human patient. The breakthrough surgery was done as part of a partial face transplant on Aaron James, a 46-year-old military veteran who lost his left eye in an accident.
The team, led by Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, transplanted the entire eyeball, not just the cornea as has been done previously. After six months, the new eye shows positive signs – the blood vessels and retina appear healthy. However, the optic nerve is not yet communicating with the brain, so James has not regained sight.
Doctors hailed the surgery as a major advancement for eye transplantation. Rodriguez said, “the mere fact that we transplanted an eye is a huge step forward, something that for centuries has been thought about, but it’s never been performed.”
The medical team remains hopeful the transplanted eye may eventually allow James to see again. During surgery, they injected stem cells to try to help the optic nerve heal and connect to the brain.
James knew sight restoration was not guaranteed but consented to the surgery to potentially help advance science. Rodriguez noted it’s too soon to know if vision will be restored, but said, “If we can work with other scientists on restoring vision, I think we’re one step closer.”
The successful transplant opens possibilities for combining eye transplants with technology like electrodes to enable sight. Rodriguez said this surgery “opens up a new path” in the field. More testing is still needed to determine if transplanted eyes can truly restore vision.