Surgeon plans first head transplant

By Drum Digital
26 May 2015

An Italian surgeon claims he will be ready to undertake a head transplant in 2017, although colleagues elsewhere doubt the technical feasibility of the operation, quite apart from the ethical nightmare that will result if it goes wrong.

Turin neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero is to present his case to the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland, in June.

"I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible," Canavero told the journal New Scientist, adding that he already has potential candidates for the operation

Edgar Biemer, a German professor whose team carried out a ground-breaking double-arm transplant in 2008, takes a different view.

"It's impossible. It's speculative and there's nothing of this kind on the horizon into the distant future," Biemer, now retired, told dpa.

Canavero was not available for comment. According to AANOS, he has been investigating the possibility of a head transplant for the past 30 years, although little is known of his work.

According to the New Scientist article, Canavero plans to cool the bodies of a brain-dead donor and of the recipient, so that the cells can survive as long as possible without oxygen. Hundreds of doctors are to be involved.

The key point would be to sever the spinal cords of both cleanly.

Advice

Veit Braun, head of neurosurgery at Siegen Hospital in Germany, says it can't be done.

"After you cut the spinal cord from the head, you can never put it back together again," he told dpa. "It won't work," the professor said bluntly. At best the patient will end up with a functioning brain unable to communicate with its new body.

"This is extremely unethical," he said.

Canavero plans to fuse the two spinal cords, which he compares with two densely packed bundles of uncooked spaghetti, by flushing the area with polyethylene glycol.

Just as hot water makes dry spaghetti stick together, polyethylene glycol encourages the fat in cell membranes to mesh, according to the New Scientist article.

There have been several experiments in doing this with animals, but none of the animals have survived more than a couple of days.

Ren Xiao-Ping of China's Harbin Medical University transplanted a mouse's head in 2013.

Ren told China's People's daily that Canavero had been in touch with him, asking for advice.

Canavero's patient is to spend three to four weeks in an induced coma after the operation. After being brought out of it, the patient should be able to speak. After a year's physiotherapy, he would have enough control over his new body to walk.

The operation itself is expected to take 36 hours and cost more than $10m.

A Russian computer programmer, Valery Spiridonov, aged 30, has volunteered to be the first to have his head transplanted onto a healthy body.

Spiridonov suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, a muscle-wasting disease, and is confined to a wheelchair.

"I know that I might die on the operating table," he said, but added: "My decision is final and I do not plan to change my mind...

"I am scared. But what people don't really understand is that I don't really have many choices," he said.

Spiridonov takes the view that he does not have long to live in any case.

Believing he has surmounted the technical problems, Canavero acknowledges the ethical issues are considerable.

"Should an operation like this be carried out at all? There will apparently be many people who do not think so," he said.

DPA

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