What does it take to make a head transplant work?
A pair of scientists have been working hard to break one of the most pervasive myths of the medical world and bring new life to paralysis patients. Xiaoping Ren and Sergio Canavero have been collaborating to make the Frankenstein-esque procedure of a live head transplant into a reality.
A whole new meaning to “new you”
The idea of taking one person’s head and sewing it onto another person’s body seems like a procedure taken straight from a horror novel, but according to a couple of very ambitious scientists, it could be the future of renewed mobility for paralysis patients. Similarly-outlandish surgeries such as full face transplants have recently been proven successful, but none have been quite so controversial as the notion of a head transplant. Successful proofs of concept have been executed using mice, dogs, and monkeys, but a successful (or unsuccessful for that matter) transplant has never been carried out.
In theory, a head transplant would involve the head of a healthy, living human being to be surgically grafted onto the precisely-selected healthy body of a braindead donor who would ideally be as close a match as possible to the recipient’s original body. The process would be much like how organ donors agree to give parts of their body to those in need after they die. The surgery itself is estimated to cost in the ballpark of USD 100 million and require a team of several dozen surgeons and specialists. Before the transplant could take place, the recipient’s head would need to be preserved in a state of deep hypothermia, which comes with many risks. During their recovery period, the patient would have to be kept in a chemically-induced coma for an unknown amount of time while the body’s nerves and tissues healed from the transplant.
Ethical concerns abound
Currently, the procedure is illegal to practice in Europe and the United States, putting Canavero and Ren in a tight spot regarding their procedure’s legality and human trials. Their first transplant was scheduled for sometime “soon” after 2017, though as of mid-2019, it has still yet to happen. The man who was first on their list of prospective recipients, Valery Spiridonov, has also since backed out, claiming that he couldn’t wait forever for the surgery and that in the meantime, he’d found love, gotten married, and had a child. With more lives on the line than his own, he stepped down from the position. Canavero’s response to Spiridonov’s desire to leave the project was to reassure followers of the procedure that there were many other candidates and that Spiridonov’s nationality would have prevented him from undergoing the operation in China, where they had been working.
Since the falling out between Spiridonov and the team, more news has come to the surface that brings into question the social viability of the experimental procedure. While it might be possible, tensions between the two lead scientists could cause things to fall apart before they even begin to get off the ground. The pair have left China to work elsewhere, in an undisclosed location for legal reasons. Countless critics of the procedure have been openly attacking it, stating that it treads a precarious ethical line between medical aid and murder, depending on the outcome of the surgery. Others have gone so far as to express doubt at the team’s previous experiments supposedly proving the viability of the procedure at all, calling it monstrous and egregious. Should a living human trial be accomplished, the medical world would be faced with a revolutionary breakthrough, but until that happens, and likely still afterward for a time, criticisms will lean hard toward opposition in the name of ethics.