Stellenbosch University (SU) Transplant Team Photo: SU
Stellenbosch University (SU) Transplant Team Photo: SU

It’s 48 years since Professor Chris Barnard put South Africa on the medical map by performing the world’s first heart transplant, and now a  team of surgeons from Stellenbosch University (SU) and Tygerberg Hospital have proved SA remains at the forefront of medical progress by performing the world’s first successful penile transplant.

Stellenbosch University (SU) Transplant Team Photo: SU
The Transplant Team Photo: Stellenbosch University

The ground-breaking operation lasted nine hours and  took place on 11 December 2014 making it the first time in history that a successful long-term result has been achieved. It was the second time this type of procedure was attempted.

According to SU, the patient (whose identity is being protected for ethical reasons) has made a full recovery after just three months and has regained all function – both urinary and reproductive – in the newly transplanted organ.

The pioneering op was undertaken at Tygerberg Hospital in Bellville, Cape Town, and was led by  Prof André van der Merwe, head of SU’s Division of Urology.

Prof André van der Merwe
Prof André van der Merwe. Photo: SU

Van der Merwe said “our goal was that he would be fully functional at two years and we are very surprised by his rapid recovery.”

Van der Merwe explained that that there’s a greater need in South Africa for this type of procedure than elsewhere in the world because “many young men lose their penises every year due to complications from traditional circumcision.”

There are no formal records on the annual number of penile amputations caused by traditional circumcision in South Africa, but according to SU one study reports up to 55 cases in the Eastern Cape alone and experts estimate as many as 250 per year nationwide.

In this case, the 21-year-old patient had to have his penis amputated three years ago in order to save his life after he suffered severe complications (gangrene) from a traditional circumcision.

“This is a very serious situation. For a young man of 18 or 19 years the loss of his penis can be deeply traumatic. He doesn’t necessarily have the psychological capability to process this.

“There are even reports of suicide among these young men,” said Van der Merwe.

One of the biggest challenges was finding a donor organ. “The heroes in all of this for me are the donor, and his family,” said Van der Merwe. “They saved the lives of many people because they donated the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin, corneas, and then the penis.”

The procedure was part of a pilot study to develop a penile transplant procedure that could be performed in a typical South African hospital theatre setting  to accommodate the unique need in this country.

Van der Merwe was assisted by Prof Frank Graewe, head of the Division of Plastic Reconstructive Surgery at SU FMHS, Prof Rafique Moosa, head of the FMHS Department of Medicine, transplant coordinators, anaesthetists, theatre nurses, a psychologist, an ethicist and other support staff.

Members of the Penile Transplant team
Members of the Penile Transplant team (L-R): Prof Frank Graewe, Prof Rafique Moosa, Prof Jimmy Volmink and Dr Nicola Barsdorf

“It’s a massive breakthrough. We’ve proved that it can be done – we can give someone an organ that is just as good as the one that he had,” says Graewe. “It was a privilege to be part of this first successful penis transplant in the world.”

The planning and preparation for the study started back in 2010. After extensive research Van der Merwe and his surgical team decided to employ some parts of the model and techniques developed for the first facial transplant.

It’s hoped that this procedure can eventually be used for men who have lost their penises from penile cancer or as a last-resort treatment for severe erectile dysfunction due to medication side effects.

As part of the study, nine more patients will receive penile transplants.

“South Africa remains at the forefront of medical progress,” says Prof Jimmy Volmink, Dean of SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

“This procedure is another excellent example of how medical research, technical know-how and patient-centred care can be combined in the quest to relieve human suffering. It shows what can be achieved through effective partnerships between academic institutions and government health services.”

Watch Video – World’s First Successful Penile Transplant

Prof André van der Merwe announces that surgeons at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences performed the first successful penis transplant in the world.