Face transplants: a new life

Branislav Kollár may be just 31 years old, but the medical practitioner is at the forefront of research in the field of face transplants. 

Branislav Kollár
Branislav Kollár privat
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Someone’s body and face might be disfigured by a power line, a bear attack, a gunshot or a tumour. It is only recently that medicine has found a way to give people rendered unrecognisable by injury or illness a new life – with a face transplant. It was 2005 when doctors first attempted the procedure on a living person. Branislav Kollár was 16 at the time.

Today the 31-year-old Slovak is a leading researcher in the field. He works as a postdoc for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a teaching hospital affiliated to Harvard Medical School. His notable achievements as a researcher are largely down to his role models – as well as his academic studies at the University of Heidelberg supported by a grant from the DAAD.

A passion for medicine

Branislav Kollár first became aware of a leaning towards medicine while at school in Bratislava. He was always keen on natural sciences, and as he points out, “All of the sciences come together in medicine”. His mother is also a doctor and having a role model in the family only affirmed his choice of study.

Kollár went to a ‘PASCH’ school, where many lessons are in German and school-leavers are prepared for higher education studies in Germany. When one of his teachers told him about DAAD scholarships, Branislav Kollár made a successful application. He duly attended Heidelberg University, which has a strong reputation for research and science.

Medical expertise beyond his field

In Heidelberg he soon found another role model: Professor Markus Hecker, who at the time headed the Institute of Physiology and Pathophysiology. Professor Hecker inspired Kollár with his teaching and research, but particularly with the medical expertise he possessed beyond his specialist area. “I decided that was the way forward for me too,” he decided while still a student, subsequently applying for a position in Hecker’s laboratory.

Here he spent a research semester, finding the work so fascinating that he even extended his stay by six months. “That’s where I learnt the fundamentals of worthwhile research,” recalls Kollár. When he thinks back on his time in Heidelberg, he is still impressed by the lab’s methods: “There was always a strong emphasis on excellence in research.”

Cultural exchange and a cosmopolitan outlook

Kollár’s days in Heidelberg had an impact on him that went well beyond his studies: he was also inspired and motivated by meeting fellow students from around the globe and discovering their cultures. “It was a period that shaped me as a cosmopolitan individual.”

On graduation, Kollár spent some time working as a surgeon in Switzerland – but he soon missed research. After becoming involved in face transplants, he came to the attention of Professor Bohdan Pomahač in Boston, who would later become his boss. It was Professor Pomahač – an inspiration to Kollár – who in 2011 performed the first full-face transplant in the USA. Kollár duly travelled to a conference in the USA to speak to the surgeon – and, thanks to his research experience, landed himself a job in the teaching hospital.

How face transplants change lives

Kollár has now been working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston since 2017. In May 2019, he and other researchers published their initial findings on the long-term effects of face transplants in The New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most important medical periodicals in the world. The researchers looked at the extent to which patients could move their facial muscles, what facial expressions they controlled and how they perceived touch.

They also examined the ways in which transplants had transformed the lives of patients. Many went back to work after their operation, others had married; some could talk again after surgery, while others regained their sense of smell. The researchers also studied the response of the immune systems of patients. It is hoped that their findings will lead to transplants being accepted more readily by the body.

Supporting others

The professional grounding he received in Heidelberg continues to stand him in good stead, believes Branislav Kollár. Just recently he was approved for a grant for a research project in the USA on the basis of his research experience in Germany. Now he wants to give back some of the support he has received by helping young students on their way. “I want others to experience the positive influence that funding had on my life,” he says.

Kollár plans to stay in Boston until the end of 2019, when he will complete his specialist medical training in Germany or Switzerland. In the long term, he hopes to work as a surgeon while engaging in scientific projects. He also wishes to keep his Heidelberg experiences alive, “promoting collaboration between researchers from different countries and bringing cultures together.”

Dr. Branislav Kollár

attended a PASCH school in Bratislava and studied medicine in Heidelberg thanks to a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Today he undertakes research into face transplants as a postdoc at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.