Some call him Dr. Frankenstein, but Italian surgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero has been planning to attempt to perform the world’s first head transplant for five years. In December 2017, he will attempt to finally achieve his goal of transplanting a human head on a donor body.
“In 1970, the first cephalosomatic linkage was achieved in the monkey. However, the technology did not exist for reconnecting the spinal cord, and this line of research was no longer pursued,” he wrote. Dr. Canavero proposed transplanting a head but included reconnecting it with the spinal cord in hopes of successfully transplant the head onto a different body. “Several human diseases without cure might benefit from the procedure.”
But his idea has come under immense scrutiny and criticism, with some physicians saying that Canavero is “out of his mind.”
The first-of-its-kind procedure will be conducted on Valery Spiridinov, a 31-year-old Russian man with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare fatal genetic condition that prevents his muscles from growing.
Eighty surgeons from Russia, China and South Korea will be involved in the transplant attempt, which is estimated to take 36 hours and cost $10 million. The team is scheduled to introduce themselves and explain their plan in June 2017 at a conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
The team includes a professor of biomedical engineering who has developed a specific blade to sever the donor’s head from the body. Another physician from South Korea reportedly has developed a technique to reattach spinal cords to the brain, although many have said much more work must be done before the ultimate test is conducted on a human being.
Canavero will begin the surgical procedure by cooling the volunteer’s body to 50 degrees fahrenheit and severing both his head and the brain dead donor’s head from their respective bodies and spinal cords. The plan is to induce the volunteer into a coma for a month while blood and new nerve networks rebuild in hopes that the body doesn’t reject the head—an inherent type of risk in all transplant procedures. In addition to the spine, Spiridinov’s head will also have to be reconnected to airways, the esophagus and blood vessels.
There are serious legal and ethical concerns outside of the viability for a successful outcome. The procedure will take place in China to avoid legal issues.
Dr. Arthur Kaplan, head of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center wrote, “Ethically the big obstacle is what will happen if I stick an old head on a new body. The brain is not contained in a bucket—it integrates with the chemistry of the body and its nervous system. Would a brain integrate new signals, perceptions, information from a body different from the one it was familiar with? I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.”