How Does a Penis Transplant Work, Exactly?

A team of surgeons is set to perform the first-ever penis transplant in the U.S.
A team of surgeons is set to perform the first-ever penis transplant in the U.S. Gunter Flegar / Getty Images

A team of surgeons at Johns Hopkins University is set to perform the first-ever penis transplant in the U.S. According to the New York Times, a soldier injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan will receive a new penis courtesy of a recently deceased donor. The doctors expect that, within just a few months, the veteran will be able to urinate normally, become aroused, and even have sex.

This procedure has been performed only two other times. The first attempt, in China, reportedly failed, but the second, which took place in South Africa in December 2014, was a resounding success. The surgeons had hoped the 21-year-old recipient would regain full function with his new penis within about two years. They were shocked when everything worked just three months after the operation.

To complete this nine-hour procedure, the South African doctors used microscopic surgery to attach nerves and blood vessels in the donor penis to those remaining in the patient's body. Stitching these conduits together eventually enabled normal urination, blood flow, and ejaculation for this young man.

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Based on this success story, the Johns Hopkins doctors have been cleared to perform this same procedure on 60 recipients. The outcomes of these operations will help determine whether penis transplants will become a standard procedure. If they do, these surgeries could change the lives of thousands of men. The Department of Defense Trauma Registry reports that 1,367 military servicemen sustained injuries to their genitals between 2001 and 2013 in Afghanistan and Iraq alone. Some have suffered damage to parts of their penis or testicles, while others' entire genitalia has been destroyed.

This procedure may also be a viable option for men who've had their penis amputated, whether due to cancer or as the result of complications from circumcision. The latter case isn't all that common in the U.S., but it is a big problem in other nations like South Africa.

Some recipients of a penis transplant may even be able to father children. If they still have fully functioning testes, which generate sperm, it would be possible to have a kid who is biologically theirs and not the organ donor's. Men who do not have working testes can still receive a new penis, but it wouldn't enable them to have biological children.   

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