Back in 2013, Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero became headline news when he announced that the world’s first human head transplant was just a few years away. Now, Canavero has revealed that not only will the surgery be taking place in China in December 2017, but he also has a patient.
Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov has volunteered to be Canavero’s patient as he suffers from progressive, terminal Werdnig-Hoffman wasting disease. ‘I can hardly control my body now,’ the thirty-year-old told reporters. ‘I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease.’
Canavero claims that he received many offers from around the world for this surgery, but wanted a patient with muscle atrophy, so Spiridonov is a prime candidate. It is unsure who the donor will be as of now, however Canavero would prefer someone who is brain dead.
The surgery is planned to take place at Harbin Medical University in China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, with the help of Chinese surgeon Ren Xiaoping who has transplanted over 1,000 heads using mice.
China seems like an odd place to conduct such an operation, as many Chinese citizens don’t donate organs due to their belief in reincarnation. To combat this, the government has attempted to balance their shortage of organs with their high demand of patients by using death row inmates as organ donors. When asked about China’s interest in the project Canavero said: ‘China wants to do it because they want to win the Nobel Prize. They want to prove themselves [as] a scientific powerhouse. So it’s the new space race.’
The procedure will cost $11 million and although there will be 150 doctors and nurses present, it is estimated to take around thirty-six hours to complete. In Surgical Neurology International, Canavero outlined his procedure in great depth. Firstly, he plans to cool Spiridonov’s head and the donor’s body to between twelve and fifteen degrees Celsius, as this will allow the cells to function longer without oxygen. Next, he will separate the neck tissue and reconnect the major blood vessels before severing the spinal cord. Canavero makes a point of explaining that the equipment needed to sever the spinal cord must be sharp, he proposes using a ‘specially fashioned diamond microtomic snare-blade’ or a ‘nanoknife … with a nanometer sharp cutting edge’.
Canavero and critics agree that the most difficult part of the procedure will be fusing the spinal cords, however Canavero believes polyethylene glycol will encourage the fat in the cell membranes to combine.
Following the procedure, Spiridonov will be put into a medically induced coma for three to four weeks, throughout which doctors will use electrical stimulation to encourage connections between spinal cord nerves. When Spiridonov awakens he will have to take strong immuno-suppressants to ensure his new body does not reject his head. Canavero believes that Spiridonov will be able to use his voice upon awakening, and will be walking within a year of the transplant.
There are many critics in the medical and scientific communities who are unconvinced that Canavero’s plans will be successful. A prominent neurologist says: ‘I would not wish this on anyone, there are a lot of things worse than death’, whilst a science writer labeled the project ‘insane. Like, James Bond villain insane’. Discussing the medical side of the project, one surgeon said: ‘there is no evidence that the connectivity of cord and brain would lead to useful sentient or motor function’. Another expert is convinced that the procedure will not be conducted within the next two years, stating that the procedure will not be successful for at least another hundred years.
There has never been an attempt to transplant a human head on to another human body, but there have been procedures done on animals. In 1970, Dr Robert White claimed he had successfully transplanted a monkey’s head but the spinal cord was not attached to the body, and the monkey died eight days after the operation. Regarding Ren Xiaoping’s attempts on mice, none of them lived lengthy lives following the experiments.
However, Canavero is particularly blunt when it comes to his critics, stating that ‘all the critics who spoke are ignorant’. The neuroscientist is adamant that the operation is ’90 per cent’ guaranteed to succeed, though he admitted: ‘Of course there is a marginal risk. I cannot deny that.’
Despite the differing professional opinions, Russian volunteer Spiridonov remains hopeful, stating that his decision to become the first man to have his head transplanted is ‘similar to the first man to walk in space.’
‘The operation is aimed at restoring independence to the severely disabled,’ he said. ‘If it is successful, it will help thousands who are in an even more deplorable state than me in the future.’
‘If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it,’ Canavero continued. ‘But if people don’t want it in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else’.
image via: businessinsider.