Within a few months, or up to a year, a young American soldier severely injured from a bomb blast in Afghanistan will have an operation that’s only been successfully performed in South Africa—a penis transplant, The New York Times reports.
(Read about the young man who underwent the penis transplant in South Africa here.)
Surgeons at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore will transplant the organ from a cadaver donor whose family has granted permission. The surgeons will connect the nerves and major blood vessels from the soldier and the deceased donor, stitching the organ under the guide of a microscope. And, they say, the transplanted organ is expected to start developing urinary function, sensation, and gain the ability to perform sexually in several months once the soldier's nerves grow into the transplant.
If this seems like a rare occurrence, it’s not—at least not in the military. The New York Times says nearly 1,400 men in service suffered genital wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013, sourcing the Department of Defense Trauma Registry. Of these men, nearly all were under the age of 35 and injured by improvised explosive devices (homemade bombs). Some lost all or part of their penises or testicles, and many also lost the ability to father a child.
The New York Times reports: “These genitourinary injuries are not things we hear about or read about very often,” said Dr. W. P. Andrew Lee, the chairman of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins. “I think one would agree it is as devastating as anything that our wounded warriors suffer, for a young man to come home in his early 20s with the pelvic area completely destroyed.”
Though the surgery is considered experimental, Johns Hopkins has given the green light for doctors to perform 60 transplants—the results of which will determine whether the operation should become a standard treatment.
The surgery comes with the risk of excessive bleeding, infection, recipient rejection, and the medicine used to prevent transplant rejection may increase the patient’s odds of contracting cancer. What’s more, in this case, only the penis will be transplanted—not the testes, which is where sperm is produced. So if a recipient’s testicles are intact, but he receives a penis transplant, he will be the genetic father of any offspring. But men who have lost their testicles will not be able to have biological children.
The situation is incredibly complex and sensitive. Even if a recipient desperately wants a transplant, that doesn’t mean he and his partner will have an easy time adapting. But it does offer a glimmer of hope for returning soldiers who suffered injuries to their most sensitive body parts.