A hospital in New York City recently said it had successfully performed the world’s first eye transplant and the patient is doing well.
New York University Langone Health said it performed the surgery last May.
Hospital officials say it will be some time before it is known if the 46-year-old patient, Aaron James, will see with the new eye. But the transplant operation itself went well and the eye looks healthy.
James is an electrician in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He was hit in face by a live electric wire while at work in 2021. James was severely injured and came close to dying. He lost much of his face and one arm as a result. Doctors removed James’ left eye because the damage caused so much pain.
James had many surgeries, including a face transplant. The rehabilitation was difficult. He had to breathe and eat through tubes.
Doctors thought his face would look better if they could give him a donor eye.
James says he cannot blink his eyelid and he is not able to move the eye. But he said it feels good.
“I’m getting sensation now,” James said, adding, “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
He hopes doctors will learn something from his operation that can help the next person.
Eye operations that include transplants of the cornea – the clear tissue in front of the eye – are common. They can treat some kinds of sight loss. But transplanting the entire eye – including its blood supply and optic nerve system – is brand new. Some people call it a “moonshot,” which is an activity that has the possibility of great profit but low chance of success. Successful eye transplants could help doctors cure blindness.
Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez led the transplant team. He said “we’re not claiming that we are going to restore sight … but there is no doubt in my mind that we are one step closer.”
Some surgeons did not think the operation would go well. They worried the new eye would lose its fluid and look like a dried grape, or raisin.
But when Rodriguez examined James’ new eye last month it was full of fluid and looked as good as the one he was born with. And, there was no sign of rejection of the new organ.
Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg of Stanford University has long studied the idea of eye transplants. He called NYU’s operation a “validation” of past transplant attempts using animals.
Goldberg said the next step is to regrow the eye’s optic nerve. He noted that animal studies are making progress toward that effort.
The eye transplant was the first of its kind. But James’ other major surgery was the face transplant. They are still rare. His was only the 19th performed in the U.S.
James’ new eye came from a donor in his 30s when he died. The donor also provided three other people with needed organs.
James’ operation took 21 hours. Doctors connected the donor’s main optic nerve to the remains of James’ optic nerve. The doctors also added stem cells to try to help repair the nerve.
James is not able to open the new eye and he wears a covering to protect it. But last month he said he felt some sensation which signaled growing nerves. He also said he could feel the doctor’s touch when Rodriguez was examining his new eye.
Vaidehi Dedania is an NYU eye doctor who also works with James. She said the new eye appears to have special cells called photoreceptors which turn light into electrical signals. Sight happens when the optic nerve sends those signals to the brain.
So far, the nerve is not fully healed but doctors are surprised by its progress. Steven Galetta is NYU’s head of neurology. He said only time will tell if James’ nerve heals enough to permit sight.
The patient himself agrees.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” James said.
I’m Dan Friedell.