Earlier last year, Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero horrified the world and caused a great deal of controversy when he announced that he would perform the world's first human head transplant scheduled for December 2017. Since that bold heck-raising statement, Canavero has apparently been hard at work in testing out his technique on various animals.
The person he would be carrying out the head transplant at the end of next year is 31-year-old Valery Spriridonov from Russia who has volunteered for the procedure in hopes of living a normal life. The computer scientist suffers from a rare motor neuron disease known as Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease. The disease causes motor neurons – the nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the central nervous system to your muscles – to deteriorate, which leads to muscle atrophy and in severe cases, difficulty swallowing and breathing. Currently there is no treatment for this disease.
Canavero intends to offer the surgery as a treatment for complete paralysis. Skeptics label him the “mad scientist”, likening him to fictitious storybook character Victor Frankenstein who created a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Many surgeons have also came forward and explained their theories behind why it is impossible for Canavero's procedure to have a positive outcome, but just like Taylor Swift, the Italian doctor simply shaked it off.
“I would say we have plenty of data to go on,” says Canavero. “It’s important that people stop thinking this is impossible. This is absolutely possible and we’re working towards it.”
Now, working with other scientists in China and South Korea, he claims to have moved closer to that goal with a series of experiments in animals and human cadavers.
Canavero cited a video of a mouse sniffing and moving its legs weeks after having its spinal cord in its neck severed and refused as proof that his procedure is not simply a creation of science fiction. C-Yoon Kim, at Konkuk University School of Medicine in South Korea, who carried out the procedure, says his team have demonstrated the recovery of motor function in the forelimbs and hindlimbs of the animals. “Therefore I guess it is possible to reconnect the [spinal] cord after complete severance,” he says.
Canavero says Kim’s work shows that the spinal cord can re-fuse if it is cut cleanly in the presence of polyethylene glycol (PEG), a chemical that preserves nerve cell membranes. “These experiments prove once and for all that simply using PEG, you can see partial recovery,” he says. As well as the use of PEG, the procedure Canavero will undertake includes techniques to aid recovery such as spinal cord stimulation and the use of a negative pressure device to create a vacuum to encourage the nerves to fuse.
According to Canavero, researchers led by Ren Xiaoping at Harbin Medical University, China, have carried out a head transplant on a monkey. They connected up the blood supply between the head and the new body, but did not attempt to connect the spinal cord. Canavero says the experiment, which repeats the work of Robert White in the US in 1970, demonstrates that if the head is cooled to -15 °C, a monkey can survive the procedure without suffering brain injury.
“The monkey fully survived the procedure without any neurological injury of whatever kind,” says Canavero, adding that it was later euthanized 20 hours after the procedure for ethical reasons. There was no further information provided on this experiment.
“We’ve done a pilot study testing some ideas about how to prevent injury,” says Ren, whose work is sponsored by the Chinese government. He and his team have also performed experiments on human cadavers in preparation for carrying out the surgery, he says.
Trinh Hong Son, director of the Vietnam-Germany Hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, offered to host the procedure but Canavero is currently still seeking funds for the surgery. Canavero intends to make a request to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to finance the surgery. But wouldn't it be more apt if he went to Stephen Hawking instead, since Dr. Hawking is also affected by paralysis?