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'A full head swap between brain dead organ donors is the next stage.... We stand on the brink of a revolution, not only in medicine but in human life'
The Frankensteinian notion of head — or, more accurately, body — transplants moved closer to reality Friday with the announcement that the first head swap has been carried out on human corpses.
The next step, said Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero, is a head transplant between two brain-dead organ donors.
Canavero announced at a press conference in Vienna on Friday that a surgical team led by his collaborator in China, Xiaoping Ren, had “successfully” transferred a head from one human cadaver to another. The maverick surgeon said details of the surgery, led by a team from Harbin Medical University in China, would be released within days by a surgical journal.
After experimenting on mice, rats, dogs and primates, the first “full rehearsal” on a human body has taken place, Canavero announced with his signature theatrical flair.
“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done,” he said. “A full head swap between brain dead organ donors is the next stage,” he said, adding that an operation on a live human being will be imminent.
“Today we stand on the brink of a revolution, not only in medicine but in human life as well.”
According to Canavero, the transfer of heads between corpses took 18 hours, half the anticipated time. Ren, he said, was “absolutely satisfied with the results.”
In May, Canavero and Ren published a ghoulish account of experiments that involved transplanting the heads of small donor rats onto the back of the neck of bigger, recipient rats. Fourteen of the freakish pairings survived for an average of 36 hours.
Reporting in the journal CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, Canavero said a special pump and silicone tubes were used throughout the rat surgeries to ensure adequate blood supply to the donor’s brain while the head was being connected to the recipient.
“The whole operation process preserves the carotid arteries, jugular veins and vertebral arteries,” they reported.
Canavero is the audacious and controversial creator of HEAVEN, the “head anastomosis venture” project. The plan would see two teams of surgeons swiftly cut off the heads of two people — one, a person whose body is crippled by, for example, a neurological disease or car crash, the other from a brain-dead organ donor. The healthy head would be shifted onto the donor body using a custom-made swivel crane. Next, surgeons would reconnect and stitch up the trachea, esophagus, the carotid arteries and jugular veins, link up the spinal cords and wait for the recipient to reawaken, and — most importantly — move and talk.
Bio-ethicists have accused the “noggin exchange” surgeon of being reckless. Transplant surgeons say nobody has been able to repair a spinal cord that has been cut clean through.
But Canavero insists he has developed a way to coax axons and neurons to grow across the gap between the two severed spinal cords using a special glue-like substance developed by a B.C. researcher.
“I understand humans love the gory side of the surgery, but this is a medical procedure for a medical condition for people who are suffering awfully,” Canavero said. “So, it’s not a joke.”
His critics say that even if it proves technically feasible and the person survives, there’s no basis for the supposition that the transplanted head — and brain — will retain the person’s mind, personality or consciousness once it’s hooked up to its new body.
“The person will encounter huge difficulties to incorporate the new body in its already existing body schema and body image,” Italian scientists wrote in 2015 in the journal Surgical Neurology International, noting similar problems have occurred in cases of face and hand transplants. The result, they said, could be serious psychological problems, “namely insanity and finally death.”
Canavero was short on details Friday, less he confuses people with “surgical gibberish.” He hinted the Chinese would also announce results from the first test in humans of his special fusogen, dubbed TEXAS-PEG, used to repair damaged spinal cords.
“We have worked with those who have suffered too long from the failure of academic groups around the world,” he said. “We have an answer. It’s coming.”
But Canavero has said his true goal (which he revealed to the Post last year) is life extension via brain transplants — the idea that, as we age, we could have our brains transplanted into more youthful bodies (though it’s not clear where those bodies would come from).
“It will be a revolution the likes of which have never been seen before,” he said.
Observers criticized the science-by-press conference and said Canavero still has offered no evidence that the biggest hurdle — reconnecting the severed spinal cords from two different people and restoring brain motor function — has been overcome. “To be able to say you can just stick someone else’s head on someone else’s body is not really feasible based on current medical understanding. I’d be very keen to hear his explanation about how we’ve got around these issues,” said Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and psychiatry lecturer at the Centre for Medical Education at Cardiff University.
And doing it on dead bodies doesn’t prove success, he added. It’s just an anatomical exercise. “
You can sew dead organs together all you want and say that’s a successful attachment,” Burnett said.
The rat experiments weren’t head transplants, but “pointless head grafting onto a creature which doesn’t really need a second head.”
Even if it proves technically feasible, there are deeper philosophical questions, he said.
“If you appreciate the brain is the source of you, then you are the same person,” Burnett said. “But if you go on pure mass, percentage of body weight, you are more the donor than you are yourself.”
If you had someone else’s DNA running through your system, he added, “who are you?”
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