In news that is so weird, you almost won’t believe it, a Russian man has volunteered to be the guinea pig for the world’s first head transplant, which two doctors want to perform early next year. Valery Spiridonov — a 31-year-old Russian man who operates an educational software company out of his home in the small city of Vladimir, Russia — suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, which confines him to a wheelchair. The disease is genetic and usually fatal, a disorder “that wastes away muscles and kills motor neurons — nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that help move the body".
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Spiridonov sees a head transplant as his only hope. He told The Atlantic that “[r]emoving all the sick parts but the head would do a great job in my case. I couldn’t see any other way to treat myself.”
The initiative for the transplant is the brainchild of Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero. Canavero reportedly “compares himself to Dr. Frankenstein, mentions Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and has written ... a guide to seducing women,” and has been wanting to perform a head transplant since 2013. In 2015, Dr. Canavero performed a head transplant on a monkey. The doctor claims the monkey stayed alive for 20 hours after the surgery, but that has not been verified.
Dr. Canavero showed video of the monkey’s head transplant to Sam Kean at The Atlanticwho also could not verify how long the monkey stayed alive after the surgery. He wrote that in the video he saw, the monkey “blinked when someone prodded his eyes with forceps ... but otherwise he looked catatonic”.
Recently, Dr. Canavero recruited Chinese surgeon Xiaoping Ren, who worked on the team that performed the first successful hand transplant, to work on the head transplant. Dr. Ren apparently practiced for the hand transplant by switching around the legs on a pig.
The procedure would reportedly cost between $10 million and $100 million, Dr. Canavero plans on applying for an $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to fund the procedure. If that doesn’t work out, he figures he’ll ask Mark Zuckerberg or another tech billionaire for the money.
For Spiridonov to actually get the head transplant, the team of doctors would have to find a brain-dead male whose family consented to the procedure. Dr. Canavero plans to cool the body and the head. Then:
A custom-made crane would be used to shift Spiridonov’s head – hanging by Velcro straps – onto the donor body’s neck. The two ends of the spinal cord would then be fused together with a chemical called polyethylene glycol, or PEG, which has been shown to promote regrowth of cells that make up the spinal cord.
The muscles and blood supply from the donor body would then be joined with Spiridonov’s head, and he would be kept in a coma for three to four weeks to prevent movement as he healed. Implanted electrodes would be used to stimulate the spinal cord to strengthen new nerve connections.
Even though Dr. Canavero has successfully tested out the procedure in mice, both scientists and ethicists understandably object to the doctor’s plans. If the surgery happens, it likely won’t take place in the US because the country has laws and regulations that prevent such unorthodox procedures.
Arthur Caplan, who runs the bioethics department at NYU Langone Medical Center says Dr. Canavero’s procedure “is both rotten scientifically and lousy ethically”. Nita Farahany, director of Bioethics & Science Policy at Duke University, wonders if anyone can even legally consent to a head transplant. Plus, if Spiridonov were to die during the procedure, Dr. Canavero could feasibly be charged with homicide.
This also raises questions about what defines the self and identity. Say the transplant is successful. Would Spiridonov still be himself or would his identity shift into a combination of himself and the donor?
There’s a lot to muse on, but until we receive legitimate proof that Dr. Canavero is even able to perform this procedure, it’s all basically a thought experiment. [CBS News, Washington Post, The Atlantic]