UCLA Launches Experimental Hand Transplant Program

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UCLA says it is launching a hand transplant study and is looking for amputees, including war veterans, willing to undergo the experimental surgery.

The clinical trial program is only the fourth of its kind in the United States.

"Many patients who have lost one or both hands find that prosthetic devices are not enough to help them get back the life they had enjoyed previously," Dr. Kodi Azari, the program's surgical director, said earlier this week. "In these cases, hand transplantation can offer a unique opportunity to regain dynamic function and the feel of a real human hand."

The procedure does not restore full hand strength and sensation, but Azari said it may enable people to perform many tasks.

"It's never like your (old) hand, unfortunately, yet we have found really quite remarkable results," Azari said.

Only about 40 people have received hand transplants since French surgeons performed the first successful operation in 1998. Nine people had received hand transplants in the United States, including two who had both hands transplanted.

The University of California, Los Angeles, study will try to confirm that current surgical techniques are successful. The program also will study the safety and effectiveness of drugs used to prevent the recipient's body from rejecting the transplanted hand.

The UCLA Hand Transplantation Program could help veterans who lost a hand in Iraq and Afghanistan, the school said.

UCLA said people applying for the procedure must be adults who have had an amputation at the wrist or forearm. The amputation cannot have been the result of cancer or a birth defect.

Patients will be placed on a waiting list to receive a hand matched from a dead donor. The hands will be matched to donors sharing the same blood type, gender, size and skin color.

A team of doctors then will attach the hand, connecting bones, blood vessels, nerves and about 20 tendons.

Patients will receive immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection and undergo therapy to restore hand function, UCLA said in a statement.

Hand transplantation does have critics, who cite the risks from rejection and note that increasingly sophisticated artificial limbs are available.

"I question whether it's justified to put a patient on lifelong immunosuppressive medication with the increased risk of cancer and infection for a non-life-threatening ailment, which can be treated with excellent mechanical devices," said Dr. Tjerk Bury of Thousand Oaks, a plastic and hand surgeon.