Campus News

April 26, 2011

Report From: Health Sciences

Hand transplant is academic health science at its best

S. Wright Caughman is executive vice president for health affairs, CEO of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, and chairman of Emory Healthcare

I like to think of the work we do here in Emory's Woodruff Health Sciences Center as academic health science at its best. To me that means that our key components are interdependent, and that success in one enhances the opportunity for success in another. One recent achievement – Emory's first hand transplant surgery – exemplifies one such instance in which our people and our missions converged to serve humanity by improving health.

When Florida college student Linda Lu came to Emory to undergo rare hand transplant surgery, she may not have realized the full breadth of the team that would be supporting her complex surgery and long recovery. Lu, who lost her left hand to an autoimmune disease as an infant, underwent a 19-hour surgery at Emory University Hospital on March 12 – a success by all measures thanks to the concerted efforts of faculty and staff throughout the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.

The surgical team was led by Linda Cendales, assistant professor of surgery in the School of Medicine and a member of the Emory Transplant Center faculty. Dr. Cendales was also on the team in Louisville, Ky., that performed the first U.S. hand transplant in 1999. Her extraordinary accomplishment makes Emory one of just four institutions to have ever successfully performed this extraordinarily complex procedure.

But Dr. Cendales will be the first to tell you that she didn't achieve it alone. Her Vascularized Composite Allograft program, created in 2007 and sponsored by a Department of Defense grant, operates in partnership with the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (As you can imagine, the success of this surgery holds great promise for injured members of our nation's military.)

In addition to our great partners at the VA, the transplant team also included scores of Emory Healthcare staff, including multiple teams of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, operating room staff and rehabilitation staff.

And before the procedure even made it to the operating room, Yerkes National Primate Research Center was an invaluable collaborator in the preclinical work, helping to develop the protocol for vascular composite transplantation.

The Yerkes collaboration allowed our transplant team to study the behavior of these tissues after transplant, minimizing the process of rejection. Yerkes also teamed with the Emory Transplant Center in the development of belatacept, a novel immunosuppressant for use in transplant, which is also showing great promise in patient outcomes.

Our first hand transplant is an achievement for the entire Woodruff Health Sciences Center. We came together across missions, units, disciplines and professions to achieve something few have ever done before, and we opened a new world of possibility to a young patient in need. And we can all be proud of that.

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