photo credit: Stellenbosch University
A South African surgical team has just announced the world’s first successful penile transplant. On December 11, 2014, a young man received a donor’s penis during a nine-hour procedure performed at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. Now, three months after, the transplanted organ is fully functioning — for sex and for urination — though full sensation may take a bit longer. “Our goal was that he would be fully functional at two years and we are very surprised by his rapid recovery,” team leader Andre van der Merwe of Stellenbosch University says in a statement.
The sexually active 21-year-old recipient will now be able to have children if he chooses to. Three years ago, he lost all but one centimeter of his penis when complications arose during a ritual circumcision — which members of the Xhosa group often undergo. “There is a greater need in South Africa for this type of procedure than elsewhere in the world,” Van der Merwe adds, “as many young men lose their penises every year due to complications from traditional circumcision.” According to previous estimates, as many as 250 penile amputations occur across the country every year.
Researchers initially struggled to obtain a donated penis, but they finally received one after fashioning a replacement out of skin to be buried with the donor. “The family is much happier to send the body to the grave with something resembling a penis,” Van der Merwe tells Bloomberg.
This operation was part of a pilot study to develop a penile transplant procedure that could feasibly be performed in typical South African hospital theater settings. The team used techniques developed for the first facial transplant, including microscopic surgery to connect small blood vessels and nerves. While blood vessels in the kidney can be a centimeter wide, for example, the ones they’re working with here are about 1.5 millimeters wide, BBC reports.
“It’s a massive breakthrough,” Frank Graewe of Stellenbosch University says. “We’ve proved that it can be done — we can give someone an organ that is just as good as the one that he had.” Nine more patients will be receiving penile transplants as part of this study.
This is at least the second time a surgery like this was attempted, and the first time it was successful. In 2006, a patient in China asked doctors to remove his new organ just 10 days after surgery. While the transplant was physically successful, Washington Post explains, the psychological trauma may have been too much.