Saving face, with the help of science

FaceoffI love it when life imitates art. Back in 1997, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage starred in a movie called Face/Off. Here’s the plotline: A revolutionary medical technique allows an undercover agent to take the physical appearance of a major criminal and infiltrate his organization. Of course, the heavy (Travolta), being no fool, applies the same technique to his own bad self to take on the identity of the undercover good guy (Cage). The film then disintegrates into a bloody, tortured affair of one mistaken identity after another, with car chases and gun battles until finally, surprise surprise, the good guy wins. Fast forward to the present, and guess what? The medical community has developed a procedure to give people new faces. A story in today’s New York Times highlights the advancements of so-called face transplants. Dr. Maria Siemionow, a pioneer in the field, is looking for a human guinea pig to perform the first such operation on. The procedure is a little ghoulish. The new face comes from a freshly deceased donor whose countenance has to be “harvested” within eight hours of the operation. As you can imagine, all sorts of things can go wrong. What doctors don’t know is how a recipient’s immune system might respond to the new face. Siemionow calls Face/Off, the movie, “science fiction” that distracts from the issue of giving horribly scarred people new leases on life. But the actual procedure sounds like a combination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a PBS documentary and those identity-theft commercials for Citibank. Siemionow got the go-ahead to proceed with an operation from the Cleveland Clinic (where she practices) last fall. Right around Halloween.

—Posted by Steve McClellan