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Chimp attack victim Charla Nash's body rejecting face transplant

The Connecticut woman who underwent a face transplant five years ago after being attacked by a chimpanzee is back in a Boston hospital.
/ Source: TODAY

The Connecticut woman who underwent a face transplant five years ago after being attacked by a chimpanzee is back in a Boston hospital after doctors discovered her body is rejecting the transplant.

Charla Nash had been taking part in an experiment in which doctors at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital had tried to wean her off the anti-rejection drugs she had been taking since the 2011 operation.

Her doctors now hope to reverse the rejection by ending the experiment, Nash's publicist, Shelly Sindland, said.

Nash is doing well and the viability of her face transplant "is not in jeopardy," said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at BWH. "She has resumed her original medication, and will most likely leave the hospital in the next day or two. We expect this rejection episode to be resolved within the coming week.

RELATED: Charla Nash hopes to give back by helping wounded veterans

Anti-rejection drugs can have serious side effects, and the military funded the experiment in the hopes the alternative treatment could help those needing transplants after returning from war.

Charla Nash
Charla NashShelly Sindland Photography

"I appreciate everyone's concern, " Charla Nash said in a statement. "I feel perfect. I didn't even know I was having a rejection episode."

"While I am disappointed that I cannot continue in the research project, I am proud of my contributions to date, and am hopeful that it will help those wounded serving our country, and others needing transplants in the future."

Nash recently discovered several unusual patches on her face, Sindland said. Doctors on Monday did a biopsy and determined her body was rejecting the transplant, she said.

If the attempt to reverse the rejection is unsuccessful, it isn't immediately clear what the next step would be, Sindland said.

The immunosuppression drugs that transplant patients are typically given for the rest of their lives carry such risks as cancer, viral infections and kidney damage. Because of those dangers, many transplants of non-vital body parts, such as thumbs, are not considered worth doing. But doctors say that could change if the drugs don't have to be a lifelong commitment.

The Pentagon, which also paid for Nash's transplant, has provided grants to 14 medical facilities across the U.S. through its hand and face transplantation program. The face and the extremities are the most frequently injured parts of the body in war.

Nash, whose father was an Air Force veteran, said, "I wish I could have done more. I believe in the power of prayer and appreciate everyone who is praying for me."

RELATED: Chimp attack victim seeks primate safety act: 'I don't want it to happen again'

Nash lost her nose, lips, eyelids and hands when she was mauled in 2009 by her employer's 200-pound pet chimpanzee in Stamford, Connecticut. Doctors also had to remove her eyes because of a disease transmitted by the chimp.

She later received new facial features taken from a dead woman. She also underwent a double hand transplant, but it failed when her body rejected the tissue.

When she began the experiment involving the suspension of anti-rejection drugs in March, 2015, doctors said it would eventually include other patients and its findings could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of people, military and civilian alike.

Nash, who also lost a hand in the attack, has been learning to use a prosthetic hand to grip a fork. The Department of Defense did not cover purchase of the prosthetic hand, which Nash was able to get it thanks to the kindness of others. A GoFundMe account has been set up for her.

--The Associated Press