Frankenstein fiction: Head transplants in humans now a reality
In July 2013, an Italian surgeon from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, Dr Sergio Canavero, spoke of his idea of carrying out a head transplant. He gave his project the name ‘Heaven-Gemini’.
Later in June 2015, he presented his updated plans, in Annapolis, at the 39th Annual Conference of ‘American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeon.
The doctor received many mails, many of which were transgender, volunteering to become part of his study but he chose a 30-year-old Russian computer scientist, Valery Spirindonov, who is facing the Werdnig-Hoffman disease – a muscle-wasting illness.
Valery informed the media that he volunteered because he could hardly control his body – people in his condition do not live more than 20-years and he is already 30.
The surgery would involve the recipient’s head being attached to the donor’s body via a spinal cord fusion. The head and the body would be separated by an “ultra-sharp blade” giving minimal damage to the spinal cord. The head would then be fused with the spinal cord and the muscles and blood supply will be sutured. The recipient would be kept in coma for around four weeks during which he would be given electrical stimulations to boost nerves. The surgeon expects that physical therapy would enable the recipient to walk in one-year duration.
In 1970, a monkey’s head was transplanted onto another monkey by Dr Roberts White, a US neurosurgeon. The animal only survived for nine days as the immune system rejected the head. During this time, it could only see, hear, taste and smell; the animal stayed paralyzed, as technology had not reached a level to connect the nerves of the spinal cord to the head (spinal cord fusion).
Dr Canavero in his public appearances has openly admitted the challenges with the project like stopping the immune system from rejecting the head or reconnecting the severed spinal cord in the 36 hour surgery requiring hundreds of doctors. But he seems hopeful.
The Italian doctor in his editorial quoted a study published last year, where German researchers reconnected a severed spinal cord of rats. The study was done on 12 rats and all surgeries were successful. In many public appearances, he has quoted the same study suggesting the use of similar techniques for humans.
Medical experts worldwide have already started a debate on the proposal of the Italian doctor. Many doctors have called it unacceptable, scientifically unsound and against medical ethics. Many are of the view that before the procedure is applied on humans, it needs to be done on animals for a few more years. Doctors are also concerned about the complexity of the procedure and believe that technology is still not mature enough for such surgery.
At a public speaking forum, Dr Canavero said that the only barrier between him and the surgery are current medical rules. He said that if the society doesn’t want it, he won’t do it, but it doesn’t mean that no one else would do it.
At the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons’ annual meeting, Dr. Canavero and the volunteer were bombarded with questions; though the doctor gave answers, the volunteer mostly remained quiet, except for once where he showed confidence and trust in his doctor. He said that he was quite aware of the consequences and complications, but he was ready for the risk.
Though no date has been set for the surgery, Dr Canavero is ready to do it as early as the following year. He is interested in doing the surgery in USA, though if US medical ethics do not allow him, he may conduct it in China.