The world's first face transplant took place a mere eight years ago, but already the field is advancing at a rapid pace: surgeons in countries including France, China, and the US have all performed these intensive procedures with successful results. And now, the US government is getting ready to regulate the field of face and hand transplants the same way they do with conventional organ transplants.

Right now, face and hand transplants are so rare that the processes — from donation to surgery to post-transplant monitoring — are largely overseen by hospitals and doctors themselves. A hospital might collaborate with a local organ bank, for instance, to search for a match that would be suitable for a patient in need of a new face. From there, they typically ask next-of-kin for consent to perform the procedure, and conduct their own follow-ups to monitor the long-term outcomes of the procedure.

Allow people to opt-in as donors

But starting in July, some of that is going to change. According to the Associated Press, the US government is finalizing regulations that would allow people to opt in as donors for face, hand, and other cutting-edge reconstructive transplants — much in the way they currently do with organs like hearts and livers. It's unclear how that consent process might work, largely because faces and hands are complex combinations of muscle, nerve, and other tissue, rather than simpler combinations that comprise commonly donated internal organs. They're also visible body parts, and especially where faces are concerned, can spark discomfort — leading experts to warn that consent for face and hand transplants should be starkly distinguished from that for other organs, for fear of turning some people off altogether. "The consent process for the life-saving organs should not, must not, be derailed by a consent process for a different kind of organ," said Suzanne McDiarmid, of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which currently oversees the US transplant system. "[One] that the public might think of as being very different from donating a kidney or a heart or a liver."

"The consent process for the life-saving organs...must not be derailed."

In addition to making it easier to find a match, the new rules would also govern the technical expertise required for a hospital to conduct such surgeries, patient waiting lists, and the tracking of surgical outcomes. Right now, such outcomes are loosely monitored by a voluntary global database, and surgeons have published extensive reports on protocols and best practices. These more rigorous guidelines, which will be enforced by UNOS, would likely make the surgeries more common and even more successful.