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Surgeon says first head transplant could be only 2 years away

By Stephen Morgan     Feb 27, 2015 in Science
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero predicts that he will be ready to carry out the first head transplant in just two years from now. He says the various medical techniques already exist and he only has to bring them together to succeed.
Detractors have drawn comparisons between Canavero's project and Frankenstein's monster and have called it the stuff of utter fantasy, but his remarks are being taken seriously by some in the medical community.
Medical News Today reports that he intends to announce his plans at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons' 39th Annual Conference in Annapolis, MD, in June and he has also recently written an editorial in the journal Surgical Neurology International outlining his proposals.
Dr Canavero works for the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy and is no stranger to controversy. He has been advocating the development of full body transplants for years.
However, when Medical News Today (MNT) first reported on his ideas two years ago, Canavero believed there were still important difficulties to be overcome with reconnecting the severed spinal cord and preventing rejection by the immune system.
However, he now thinks that recent animal studies have shown that transplanting a human head is definitely feasible. In particular, he cites the successful reconnection of the spinal cords in rats carried out in Germany last year.
The New Scientist also reports that Dr Xiao-Ping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China has recently succeeded in perform a basic head transplant in a mouse and that he plans to soon replicate this in mice and monkeys.
MNT says this was first attempted back in the 1970's, when US neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White transplanted a monkey's head onto another monkey's body. The animal could see, hear, taste and smell, but was paralyzed from the head down, because the technology didn't exist to fuse the monkey's spinal cord nerves and it died nine days later when its immune system rejected the head.
However, Canavero believes that the recent advances in drugs would make immune rejection much less likely today. Indeed, the New Scientist quotes some backing for his ideas from William Matthews, chairman of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS) who said that overcoming rejection by the immune could be possible. "The system we have for preventing immune rejection and the principles behind it are well established," he said.
So how would Canavero's head transplant work?
MNT explains.
"Both the recipient's head and the donor body will be placed in "hypothermia mode" for approximately 45 minutes, which is believed to eliminate any neurological damage that may be caused by lack of oxygen.
The head will be removed from the donor body using an "ultra-sharp blade" in order to limit damage to the spinal cord. "The key to SCF [spinal cord fusion] is a sharp severance of the cords themselves," Dr. Canavero explains, "with its attendant minimal damage to both the axons in the white matter and the neurons in the gray laminae. This is a key point."
The recipient's head will then be attached to the donor body. This is the most difficult part of the procedure, which will involve fusing the end of spinal cord in the body with that of the head. Dr. Canavero says chemicals called polyethylene glycol (PEG) or chitosan can be used to encourage SCF. Next, the muscles and the blood supply will be sutured.
Once the surgery is complete, the recipient will be kept in a coma for around three to four weeks to avoid neck movements and give the nerve connections time to fuse. During this time, the recipient's spinal cord would be subject to electrical stimulation via implanted electrodes, with the aim of enhancing the new nerve connections.
Canavero predicts that when the patients regain consciousness, they will be able to speak with the same voice and feel their face and move their body. But he adds that it would take a year of physiotherapy before they could walk properly.
His critics vary in their opinions from those who see it as plain freaky, others who think it just couldn't work or those who consider that it will take many more years of research to succeed. As the New Scientist points out, there are also those who think that this would be the beginning of a slippery slope towards healthy people swapping bodies for cosmetic reasons.
However, Canavero believes that his "HEAVEN-GEMINI" procedure could be used principally to help suffers of spinal injuries, muscle wasting diseases, motor neuron disease and also people with incurable illnesses.
The only problem Canavero sees is the issue of ethics.
"The real stumbling block is the ethics," he says. "Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it.
“If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else. I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.”
The doctor says he already has a substantial number of patients hoping to undergo the head transplant procedure, even though the operation will cost $11.5 million (10.3 million Euros) (£7.5 million).
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