It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, more bizarre even than Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen body, but according to New Scientist magazine, this radical, ethically sensitive surgery could be ready in 2017.
The proposal comes from surgeon Sergio Canavero from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, who wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose organs are riddled with cancer and whose muscles and nerves are degenerated.
Canavero will be launching the world’s first ever human head transplant at the
annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland this year. He believes that the science has moved to the point where this radical procedure would be feasible as fusing the spinal cord and getting the body’s immune system to not reject the head may be possible.
While in terms of scientific advances this surgery may be conceivable and Canavero has outlined a summary of the technique he believes would allow surgeons to transplant a head onto a new body in Surgical Neurology International – is it likely to ever be approved?
The ethical implications
One of the major hurdles facing Canavero will be in finding a country that will approve such a surgery. He told New Scientist, "The real stumbling block is the ethics. Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it. If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it in the U.S. or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else,” he said. “I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.”
Part of the ethical issues related to this surgery is how you define human life, explains neurologist Patricia Scripko in New Scientist. Scripko believes that for her, what makes us who we are is held within the higher cortex, and if this is altered then you are not the same human. As the surgery does not alter the cortex, it’s not changing her definition of what makes us human. But, she stresses, many people don’t feel this way and many cultures would not approve of this surgery because they believe the human soul is not confined to the brain.
Another concern, says Scripko, is that people many believe that it would be a slippery slope where some people would want it for cosmetic reasons, which she doesn’t believe would happen. “If a head transplant were ever to take place, it would be very rare. It's not going to happen because someone says 'I'm getting older, I'm arthritic, maybe I should get a body that works better and looks better'."
If it did get approved - how would it work?
While Canavero may be the first person to be proposing this now, head transplants have been performed before with animals. According to New Scientist, as far back as 1954, the first head transplant of a dog was performed, and the first successful head transplant of a monkey occurred in 1970 at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, although the surgeons did not join the spinal cords so the monkey couldn’t move its body.
Canavero’s proposal involves fusing the spinal cord with the donor body after a process of dissection and cooling to extend the time the donor’s cells can survive without oxygen.
After the surgery, the body would be kept in a coma to prevent movement. Canavero predicts that when the patient wakes up they would be able to speak with the same voice and be able to feel their face.
Canavero believes that with drugs they should be able to manage the immune system’s response to prevent rejection.
Is it likely to happen or to work?
Experts are unsure whether this is really likely to happen. Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor at University of California, told New Scientist that there are too many issues that could go wrong with the procedure in his opinion. In fact many surgeons who were contacted by the magazine and asked their opinion said that it was outlandish and unlikely to ever occur or be approved.
Some though, believe that it may be feasible like Xiao-Ping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China, who will even be attempting to replicate Canavero’s procedure in a few months in mice and monkeys. Ren has previously shown that it is possible to perform a basic head transplant in a mouse.
For Canavero, the point is to get people talking. To start a debate and see if it could work, and if it could be approved. He’s certainly done that.