Britain celebrates first hand transplant

A pub landlord who lost the use of his right hand has had it cut off and replaced by another. The procedure was a historic success – but operations like this could soon be obsolete.

Mark Cahill’s right hand was a sad and useless thing. Contaminated with gout, it had withered away and died, losing all movement and sensation. So the doctors made a bold decision: they would replace it.

Now, the Yorkshire pub landlord is the beneficiary of Britain’s first ever hand transplant operation, and the happy owner of a brand new hand.

Cahill’s procedure was groundbreaking and extremely complex, with a huge, international team of specialists contributing to its success. But impressive as it was, this was not the first operation of its kind: over fifty people have received new hands since 1998.

Yet the idea of attaching one part of a human to another still seems almost as miraculous as it did in the 3rd Century AD, when Christian mythology tells of Saint Damian replacing an amputee’s leg.

Unless it really was a miracle, this story is almost certainly untrue. Attaching each nerve and blood vessel is an extremely intricate process; then, unless the match is near-perfect, the recipient’s immune system treats the strange new cells as hostile invaders and attacks them. The history of attempted transplants is littered with deaths caused by patients ‘rejecting’ new limbs and organs.

Since the 20th Century, huge breakthroughs have been made in transplant science. Lungs, livers, eyes, hearts, hair, even faces: all can now be transferred from one body to another.

Yet the age of the transplant may already be nearing an end. Mark Cahill chose to adopt a biological hand, but most people in his position now opt to have a brand new one especially constructed.

Prosthetic body parts can now be produced which look and feel amazingly like the real thing. And they will only get better: scientists are now working on technology that will allow them to regrow organs from human cells and to ‘print’ skin cells on top a false limb, making it look and feel entirely human.

Amputee athletes like Oscar Pistorius can already outstrip their able-bodied rivals. In the not-too-distant future, prosthetic limbs may be even more powerful, mobile and precise than the originals.

Give us a hand

Amazing though they are, transplants make many people feel extremely uncomfortable. There is nothing more personal to us, they say, than our own bodies: would you really be happy to see a dead relative’s face transferred to a stranger? And if we keep combining ourselves with alien body parts, can we be sure that we truly remain ourselves?

But prosthetics have their enemies as well. At least a human hand comes from a living body, they say; the new technology will lead to a dangerous combination of humans and machines. A biological body is what makes us human, they argue; we should think twice before consigning them to the scrap heap.

You Decide

  1. If you lost a part of your body, would you rather have it replaced by an artificial limb or the limb of another human? Or would you simply follow your doctor’s advice?
  2. If you were going to be the recipient of a transplant, would the history and personality of the donor matter to you? Why / why not?

Activities

  1. Hold a class debate on the proposition: ‘Anybody who does not donate their organs to science when they die is committing an immoral act.’
  2. Why does the human body sometimes ‘reject’ transplanted organs and other body parts? Do some research and write a brief explanation.

Some People Say...

“The human body is sacred and should never be tampered with.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Where do all these body parts come from?
In some cases, body parts can be taken from living people (with their willing consent, of course). It is perfectly possible to live a normal life with a single kidney, so the relatives of those who suffer from serious kidney disease often donate one of their own. But in most cases a transplant comes from a corpse.
I don’t want other people using my body!
In that case they won’t: your organs will only be used if you give your consent (although some countries, such as Spain, operate a system in only those who ‘opt out’ will keep their organs after death). It’s completely up to you, but donating organs really does save lives. The UK, for instance, 7,500 people are currently awaiting donations for crucial operations.

Word Watch

Groundbreaking
Though other hand transplants have been conducted before, nobody has ever removed one hand and attached another in the same operation until now. This required co-operation between a huge range of different experts.
Immune system
The immune system is responsible for defending the body against disease. It has two main functions: recognising harmful organisms in the body and destroying them. It is made up of white blood cells, or leukocytes.
Oscar Pistorius
Pistorius is one of a very few athletes to have competed successfully in both the Paralympic and the Olympic Games. Both of his legs are amputated below the knees, but the South African sprinter has mastered his carbon fibre blades so completely that he is one of the fastest runners in the world over 400 metres, disabled or otherwise.

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