Patients in the U.K. will be able to get hand and upper arm transplants on the state, National Health Service (NHS) England announced on Friday.
The healthcare body said that a center at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust would start to assess the suitability of adult candidates and begin performing the "highly-complex procedure from April."
"The NHS is leading the world in offering this cutting-edge procedure, which has been shown to significantly improve the quality of life for patients who meet the strict criteria," Dr Jonathan Fielden, NHS England's Director of Specialized Commissioning, said in a news release.
The center at Leeds, in the north of England, is led by Professor Simon Kay, a consultant plastic surgeon who in 2012 performed the U.K.'s first hand transplant.
According to NHS England, hand and upper limb transplants can improve the quality of a patient's life. If the procedure is successful, over time the hand will be able to heal itself if it's injured, gain dexterity and strength, and feel warm to the touch.
"We are delighted to be confirmed as the provider of this new service," Kay said. "The extensive multi-professional expert team here at Leeds is keen to now assess new patient referrals and benefit patients and their families in a way they may never have thought possible before," he added.
Founded in 1948, the NHS is based on the idea that healthcare should be available to everyone, irrespective of wealth. As such, all care on the NHS is free at the point of delivery.
The procedure is incredibly complex, with four teams of surgeons working at the same time. It is estimated to cost around £50,000 ($71,475) and take up to 16 hours to complete. Potential recipients need to be evaluated for "psychological and physical suitability."
NHS England says it anticipates that between two and four patients a year will be listed for the procedure as an alternative option to a prosthetic hand or limb.
After the transplant has taken place, patients have to take medication for the rest of their life and complete physiotherapy exercises every day. So far, roughly 80 hand transplants have taken place globally.
The patient to benefit from Kay's ground breaking transplant in 2012 is Mark Cahill. The NHS says that four years on, he is able to tie his shoelaces, carry his granddaughter and even drive.
"My experience as a patient and my quality of life since the hand transplant has been fantastic," Cahill said in the news release.
"I would like to thank once again the family of the donor who gave their permission for me to have the hand of their relative at such a difficult time for them. It really has transformed my life," he added.