World

First human head transplant could happen in two years

The dreams of Dr Frankenstein are a few steps closer to becoming reality.

Two leading transplant scientists — an Italian physician and his Chinese counterpart —  will work together to conduct the world’s first human head transplant.

Sergio Canavero —​ a controversial physician who announced his plans to attempt a human head in June — says that he will partner with Ren Xiaoping, a Chinese surgeon with the second affiliated hospital of Harbin Medical University, on this ultimate medical challenge.

“(A successful) head transplant will change the course of human history by curing incurable medical conditions,” Canavero told Xinhua at an academic conference in northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province.

“Ren Xiaoping is the only person in the world able to lead this project.”

Ren, 53, regarded as a real-life Dr. Frankenstein by his critics, triggered public debate after successfully transplanting the head of one mouse to another’s body in 2013.

He announced plans to perform the operation on primates this year.

MICE

Since then, his team has since performed nearly 1,000 head transplants on mice.

Though post-surgery longevity is still an issue. Having tested various methods to help the mice live longer, the record for survival is just one day.

Canavero and Ren have identified a 30-year-old Russian computer scientist, Valery Spiridonov, with muscular dystrophy as the first patient.

Spiridinov who suffers from the rare muscle-wasting Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, has volunteered for the procedure.

It is roughly estimated that the transplant will cost S$15 million.

However, both of them admit that there are many technical difficulties with linking the nervous system, blood vessels and spinal cord in order to prevent the body from rejecting the head.

In addition to technical difficulties, they must also design special equipment, instruments, medicines and surgical methods.

That said, the complicated project could take place in two years given full funding and specifically trained staff.

It has also yet to be decided in which country the procedure will be happen in.

“The country has not been decided yet,” said Ren, noting there are no specific laws against such procedures in China.

ETHICS

The world’s first attempted head transplant was in 1970. US neurosurgeon Robert J. White transplanted the head of one monkey to the body of another.

The monkey died several days later.

The concept of head transplants has long drawn scepticism due to the morals and ethics involved.

Wang Yifang, a medical ethics expert with the Institute of Medical Humanities at Peking University, says stricter ethical evaluations need to take place for such transplants.

“It’s very complicated. You have your own head but another’s body, so who are you?” he asked.

“Even if it becomes possible, using a donor’s body – whose healthy organs can help several people – on just a single person might not be fair. Also where can donors be found?”

Ren claims his plan has been thought out thoroughly.

He hopes such experiments might help people with spinal cord injuries, cancer or muscular dystrophy in the future.

He said people were also against the first human hand transplant, but they accepted it after the operation was successful.

“Head transplants are sensitive and controversial. But as a scientist, we won’t give up because it’s controversial,” he said.

 

Source - Xinhua

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