A human head transplant will be a new frontier in science. Some people say it is the last frontier in medicine. It is a very sensitive and very controversial subject but if we can translate it to clinical practice, we can save a lot of lives.’
In 1970, Robert White led a team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US, that tried to transplant the head of one monkey on to the body of another. The surgeons stopped short of a full spinal cord transfer, so the monkey could not move its body. last year researchers at Harbin Medical University in China made some headway with mice. They hope to perfect a procedure they claim “will become a milestone of medical history and potentially could save millions of people”.
China‘s ‘Doctor Frankenstein’ has revealed he is building a team for the world’s first full body transplant on a living human being and will operate ‘when we are ready’. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr Xiaoping Ren spoke about the details for his plan, which involves removing two heads from two bodies and connecting the donor body to the recipient’s head.
A metal plate would be inserted to stabilize the new neck, while the spinal cord nerve endings would be saturated in a glue like substance to help regrowth. Earlier this year, Dr Ren shocked the world when it was revealed his team had carried out a successful head transplant on a monkey – and that it lived for 20 hours.
Many surgeons and neuro-scientists believe massive technical hurdles push full body transplants into the distant future. The starkest problem is that no one knows how to reconnect spinal nerves and make them work again. Were that possible, people paralyzed by spinal injuries could have surgery to make them walk again
According to the procedure Canavero outlined earlier, doctors would first cool the patient’s head and the donor’s body so their cells do not die during the operation. The neck is then cut through, the blood vessels linked up with thin tubes, and the spinal cord cut with an exceptionally sharp knife to minimise nerve damage. The recipient’s head is then moved on to the donor’s body. Canavero believes that the spinal cord nerves that would allow the recipient’s brain to talk to the donor’s body can be fused together using a substance called polyethylene glycol. To stop the patient moving, they must be kept in a coma for weeks. When they come round, Canavero believes they would be able to speak and feel their face, though he predicts they would need a year of physiotherapy before they could move the body.
Medical science has advanced to the point that a full body transplant is plausible, but the proposal has caused raised eyebrows, horror and profound disbelief in other surgeons. The psychological burden of emerging from anaesthetic with an entirely new body is firmly in uncharted territory. Another hitch is that medical ethics boards would almost certainly not approve experiments in primates to test whether the procedure works.