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Tongue Recipient Said to Be Doing Well

July 22, 2003

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ A patient who doctors say is the first-ever recipient of a human tongue transplant was recovering Tuesday and showed no signs of rejecting his new organ, his doctors said.

The patient, a 42-year-old man who suffered from a malignant tumor on his tongue and part of his jaw, underwent a 14-hour operation Saturday in which doctors amputated his tongue and attached the new one.

``The tongue now looks as if it were his own _ it’s as red and colorful and getting good blood circulation,″ said Dr. Rolf Ewers, the head of the team of nine physicians who performed the operation in Vienna’s General Hospital.

``The tongue is just slightly swollen,″ Ewers added. ``That’s also a good sign which means that probably no transplant rejection has begun.″

But the doctors also said that the patient, whose name was not released, could still face risks such as infection or rejection of the organ. He will have to take medication for the rest of his life to prevent rejection.

The team will consider the operation successful if the patient, who could no longer open his mouth because of the tumor, regains his ability to eat and speak. Surgeons worked meticulously to attach the nerves of the tongue to the severed nerve endings.

``It’s very unlikely he’ll regain his sense of taste,″ Ewers said. ``But (regaining) feeling and primarily, movement, would be an optimal result.″

Traditionally, in cases where patients lose their tongues, surgeons remove a small piece of their small intestines and graft that onto the tongue stump, the doctors said. Such patients, however, are never able to speak clearly or swallow again, and must be fed through tubes.

The recipient’s ``new″ tongue was first removed from a brain-dead donor by a separate team of doctors in an adjacent operating room and quickly handed over for transplantation, said Dr. Franz Watzinger, one of the leading surgeons.

The donor _ chosen because his blood type and tongue sized matched that of the 42-year old _ was then taken off life support.

Ewers said the team of doctors had been preparing for two years to carry out the tongue transplant, but had until now either lacked a candidate for the operation or an appropriate donor.

``And now finally after long training we were able to carry it out,″ Dr. Christian Kermer said.

He said there is no evidence in the medical literature that such an operation has even been carried out on humans and that his team felt convinced they were the first.

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