As bizarre as the idea of a full human head transplant sounds, Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, has said he is ready to proceed with the operation reminiscent of the horror story “Frankenstein.”
He had announced (see video) his intention to conduct the transplant and outlined the procedure he intends to adopt in a paper titled “The ‘Gemini’ spinal cord fusion protocol: Reloaded,” published in February 2015, in the online journal Surgical Neurology International (SNI).
He also said that he plans to launch the project at the June, 2015 annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS), scheduled to hold in Maryland, U.S. in June.
Although, Canavero said he has secured part of the funding for the project, he declined to reveal the source of funding. But he will use the opportunity of the AANOS meeting to seek professional partners and an academic medical center to host the surgery. He is bound to face obstacles, judging from the response of U.S. medical experts so far. If he is unable to find partners in the U.S., he may have to seek help in China, CNN reports.
The prospective patient Valey Spiridonov, a computer scientist who works for an IT firm in the Russian city of Vladimir, told RT, “I’m very interested in technology, and anything progressive that might change people’s lives for the better.”
He said that with his incurable condition, which involves progressive spinal atrophy, getting worse and considering the fact that people with his muscle-wasting condition, called Werdnig-Hoffman disease, usually don’t live longer than 20 years, his only chance to prolong his life and help the cause of scientific research is to undergo the controversial surgery.
Speaking with RT, Canavero compared the risk of the proposed surgery with the risk Russia took when the nation sent Yury Gagarin into space and the U.S. sent Neil Armstrong to the Moon.
He said, “Russia sent Yury Gagarin into space with fair chances of dying. America sent Neil Armstrong to the moon with fair chances of dying. And the chances here are much, much better.”
But despite having publicly identified Spridonov as the prospective patient, Canavero and Spiridonov had only talked on Skype and have never met in person. Neither has Canavero reviewed Spiridonov’s medical records.
But Canavero insists that his first patient would be a person suffering from a muscle-wasting disease and revealed that many transsexuals who want a new body have indicated interest.
Canavero told RT that the operation will last up to 36 hours, require a medical staff of 150, including doctors and nurses, and cost about $11 million. The surgery has been tentatively scheduled for June, 2016.
The first step in the procedure will involve cooling the patient’s head and brain to about 10-15 degrees Celsius or 50-60 Fahrenheit, to slow down metabolism and help the brain tissues withstand oxygen deprivation while the transplant is being conducted.
Spiridonov’s head will be transplanted to the body of a brain-dead but otherwise healthy donor.
The surgeon will employ an ultra-sharp scalpel to severe the spinal cord and remove the patient’s head. The head will then be attached to its new body using a special biological glue called polyethylene glycol, which induces cells and connective tissues to bind together.
After the procedure, Spiridonov will be placed in coma for up to a month to prevent movement. This will allow time for the wounds of the surgery to heal and the two spinal cords fuse completely to fasten the head properly.
Surgeons expect that it would take up to a year for the spinal cord from the head to fuse completely with the spinal cord from the body.
The patient will be placed on a regime of immunosuppressant drugs to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted head.
The major problem, according to experts, is not re-connecting the airways, veins and arteries but the ability of the two spinal cords to fuse without the body rejecting its new head.
Experts are objecting to the planned surgery, arguing that the science, technology and technique needed for a successful head transplant procedure are simply not yet available and that it will take many years for the science and technology to be in place.
Neurosurgeons express concern that the new body could reject its new head. Others say that heavy doses of immunosuppressant drugs could actually poison the body and create new health problems for Spiridonov. Some have argued that no one knows what acquiring a new body could to the patient’s brain and mind. Exposure of the patients’ brain to new biochemical pathways and electrical signals could cause serious mental health complications for the patient, some experts say.
A specialist in medical ethics from the NYU Langone Medical Center, Arthur Caplan, told CNN, “Their bodies would end up being overwhelmed with different pathways and chemistry than they are used to and they’d go crazy.”
He described Canavero as “nuts” and said he was merely involved in a big PR stunt. He said the procedure should have been carried out successfully on several animal subjects before an attempt on humans.
And skeptics appear to have genuine reasons to warn about the dangers of Canavero’s planned surgery.
Previous attempts at head transplants, mostly in the last century, have involved dogs and monkeys that survived only a few days after the bodies rejected their new heads.
In his SNI publication, Canavero cited an experimental transplant by Dr. Robert White about 45 years ago. Working in 1970 at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, White transplanted the head of a monkey to the body of another monkey. But the body rejected the head and the monkey died after a week.
Basing their judgment on multiple head transplant experiments conducted by White, experts said it is unlikely that Spiridonov would be able to move and breathe.
But Canavero insists that recent developments make it possible to overcome some of the technical problems that White faced. He said, “I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible.”
Dr. Hunt Batjer, president of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons and chairman of neurological surgery at UT Southwestern, told CNN that White’s experiments do not validate Canavero’s attempt.
He said, “[White’s experiments are] a 45-year-old reference in a primate and there is no evidence that the spinal cord was anastomosed functionally.”
He added, “I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.”
But despite disapproval by his professional peers, Canavaro appears confident that he can achieve the feat. He has dubbed the procedure — known technically as Cephalosomatic anastomosis — “HEAVEN,” acronym for Head Anastomosis Venture.
In surgery, anastomosis refers to any surgical procedure that involves the connection of two body parts.
Spiridonov said in an interview with the Daily Mail that undergoing the procedure is the only chance he has to prolong his life. He said,
“My decision is final and I do not plan to change my mind… Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am. But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting… But you have to understand that I don’t really have many choices… If I don’t try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.
“I do understand the risks of such surgery. They are multiple. We can’t even imagine what exactly can go wrong. I’m afraid that I wouldn’t live long enough to see it happens to someone else.
“My family fully supports me. They also understand all the risks and even if they think that it’s too dangerous, they still support me in my decision.”
If successful, the surgery would be a milestone in the history of surgical transplants after the first cornea transplant in 1905 by an Austrian surgeon; and the first heart transplant by South African doctors in 1967.
Surgical procedures involving the transplant of limbs and vital organs have been conducted successfully.
In 2009, a Spanish patient received a full face transplant.
So, some will ask, why not a head transplant?