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Close up of a soldier in combat.

The New Penis Transplants and Their Unexpected Side Effects

From Dr. Paul’s Blog at Psychology Today:

Most of us have heard about roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we seldom hear about the soldiers who had their penises amputated as a result of these bombs.

Now, the world’s first penis transplants are giving hope to these young men and their families.

You would think the biggest hurdles with the new transplants would be organ rejection or poor feeling and function. But one of the greatest challenges has been a failure of the recipient to accept the donor penis as his own—even if it has feeling and functions as well as his own penis did.

This kind of psychological rejection was the last thing Chinese surgeons expected in 2006 when they performed the world’s first penis transplant on a man whose penis had been amputated after an accident.

The operation was a complete success by medical standards—blood circulation was good, the man was able to urinate normally, and healthy erections and perhaps even orgasms were on the horizon. But surgeons had to remove the penis after only a few weeks because of the psychological trauma that the patient and his wife were experiencing. Neither the man nor his wife could adjust to his having another man’s penis, even if it might have feeling and perform as well as his original penis.

These are some of the issues surgeons and patients are facing in a new field where entire limbs and body parts are being transplanted from donors to people who badly need them. The struggle is in how to psychologically integrate a new hand, face or penis that belonged to a dead person.

This is very different from receiving a transplanted kidney, liver or even heart. While these organs are far more vital than a hand, face or penis, we don’t actually see them unless we have an ultrasound or an Xray, and then we think “That’s interesting! That’s my heart!”

It’s very different with a transplanted part of the body that we’ve seen and used every day of our lives. And the problem is not just with penises. There were similar issues with a man who received a transplanted hand and was finding himself terrified by it.

So it was with trepidation that surgeons in South Africa performed the world’s second penis transplant a little over a year ago. They waited four months after the operation before announcing they had transplanted a donor penis onto the body of a young man who had lost his penis due to a circumcision gone wrong.

While the surgeons wanted to make sure the penis worked correctly, more importantly, they wanted to be certain the man was able to make the psychological adjustment that the recipient in China had failed to make.

The young man in South Africa surprised his surgeons on all counts, from achieving successful erections and having satisfying sex to accepting the transplant as his own—as “my penis.”

Another hurdle is the hesitation of donor families to let surgeons harvest their beloved son or husband’s penis. Hearts, livers and kidneys are no problem, but donating the penis of a loved one remains a hurdle for families and the surgeons who will need them.

Fortunately, the physical, psychological and donor-family rejection will soon be greatly decreased. That’s because researchers are about five years away from being able to clone a man’s penis from his own cells.

Scientists have already been successful in creating bioengineered vaginas for women and they have successfully cloned the penises of rabbits. They are now working on a process that will allow them to bioengineer human penises from the cells of the men who will receive the transplants.

In the meantime, the intersection between technology and psychology continues to be a fascinating one. Penis transplants will gradually be available for veterans and other men who have lost their penises.

Totally unanticipated, the development lends deeper insight into the struggles described nearly 200 years ago when Mary Shelley created “Frankenstein.”

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