I would wager that the first time many of us ever saw a face transplant was in the flick Face Off which supposedly had characters switching looks.
Today, a face transplant is something that doctors are actually able to accomplish, albeit to a certain extent. Currently, the procedure is reserved for patients with massive trauma to the face that not only leaves them with a very abnormal appearance, but also makes it difficult for them to breathe, eat, and speak.
The US Army is - understandably - playing a vital role in advancing the procedure to help injured soldiers return to a normal life.
Dr. Bohdan Pomahac from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston is one of the most experienced physicians in the world of face transplants.
Thus far, Pomahac and his team have performed four face transplants on accident victims, including include three full facial procedures that were made possible by Biomedical Translational Initiative Funding with a contract issued via the Army Contracting Command Aberdeen Proving Ground, Natick
Contracting Division in 2009.
"The goal was to have technology available within 18 months that could be used for our Wounded Warriors," Cheryl DeLuca, chief of the Natick Contracting Division, told the US Army website.
"The work done in support of these face transplants will directly benefit our wounded [troops], making face transplants clinically available to them in the future."
Indeed, according to Pomahac, the medical establishment stands on the cusp of a new era in facial reconstruction.
"The initial support really came from the military funding. I think we are all feeling very, very fortunate that there is someone who sees the potential value in the future for the wounded warriors."
Pomahac recently gave a presentation at the Natick Solider Systems Center where his first face transplant patient, Jim Maki, was present.
Speaking about the future of face transplants, Pomahac said, "It [the face] is so complicated and in such a tight space that it's not even in the foreseeable future that we would be able to use some sort of man-made constructs. We pay huge attention to reconnect all the motor nerves and sensory nerves that provide the sensation, the feeling of the face both on the surface as well as inside of the mouth."
Maki underwent a face transplant after suffering severe burns from falling on an electrified subway rail in 2005.
"I think it will have tremendous potential applications for traumatic brain injury, stroke patients, for a variety of other brain conditions... [For example], we're learning that the nerves regenerate beyond what was thought to be possible. We want to see patients be able to reintegrate into society, or if it's a soldier, to be redeployed and be able to return to active duty," Pomahac added.