Italian Doctor to Attempt World’s First Human Head Transplant as Soon as 2017

By Melanie Arter | June 12, 2015 | 1:35pm EDT
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in 1931. (AP Photo)

An Italian neurosurgeon says the world’s first human head transplant could take place in the next two years, and what’s more, he has a volunteer, according to Sky News.

Dr. Sergio Canavero is scheduled to deliver the keynote lecture on the subject on Friday at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons in Annapolis, Md., in a speech, titled, “Head Transplantation: The Future Is Now.”

It may sound like a 2015 version of Frankenstein, but someone has actually volunteered to be the “guinea pig” for the procedure.

A Russian man named Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from a muscle wasting disease, will appear on stage with Dr. Canavero as he details his plan to transplant Spiridonov’s head onto the body of a healthy donor as soon as 2017.

"I am not going crazy here and rushing to cut off my head, believe me,” Spiridonov told the Daily Mail. The procedure will only take place once “all believe that the success is 99% possible.”

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time someone has actually attempted such a procedure.

According to a Feb. 25 New Scientist article, the first attempted head transplant took place in 1954, when a Soviet surgeon named Vladimir Demikhov transplanted a puppy’s head and forelegs onto the back of a larger dog.

“Demikhov conducted several further attempts but the dogs only survived between two and six days,” the article stated.

Then in 1970, the first successful head transplant was conducted on monkeys.

“A team led by Robert White at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. They didn't attempt to join the spinal cords, though, so the monkey couldn't move its body, but it was able to breathe with artificial assistance. The monkey lived for nine days until its immune system rejected the head. Although few head transplants have been carried out since, many of the surgical procedures involved have progressed,” the article stated.

Dr. Canavero’s strategy involves cooling Spiridonov’s head and the donor body to extend the time their cells can survive without oxygen,” the New Scientist article states, citing the scientific journal Surgical Neurology International.

“The tissue around the neck is dissected and the major blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes, before the spinal cords of each person are cut. Cleanly severing the cords is key, says Canavero,” New Scientist reported.

Spiridonov’s head “is then moved onto the donor body and the two ends of the spinal cord – which resemble two densely packed bundles of spaghetti – are fused together.”

“To achieve this, Canavero intends to flush the area with a chemical called polyethylene glycol, and follow up with several hours of injections of the same stuff. Just like hot water makes dry spaghetti stick together, polyethylene glycol encourages the fat in cell membranes to mesh,” the article stated. 

“Next, the muscles and blood supply would be sutured and the recipient kept in a coma for three or four weeks to prevent movement. Implanted electrodes would provide regular electrical stimulation to the spinal cord, because research suggests this can strengthen new nerve connections," it added.

When Spiridonov wakes up, Dr. Canavero predicts he will be able to move and feel his face and speak with the same voice. Physiotherapy will allow Spiridonov to walk within a year, New Scientist reports. Several people have volunteered to get a new body, according to Canavero.

The hardest part of the procedure will be getting the spinal cords to fuse, he said.

“Polyethylene glycol has been shown to prompt the growth of spinal cord nerves in animals, and Canavero intends to use brain-dead organ donors to test the technique,” New Scientist reports.

Skeptics of the procedure, like Richard Borgens, director of the Center for Paralysis Research at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., say “there is no evidence evidence that the connectivity of cord and brain would lead to useful sentient or motor function following head transplantation.”

“If polyethylene glycol doesn't work, there are other options Canavero could try. Injecting stem cells or olfactory ensheathing cells – self-regenerating cells that connect the lining of the nose to the brain – into the spinal cord, or creating a bridge over the spinal gap using stomach membranes have shown promise in helping people walk again after spinal injury. Although unproven, Canavero says the chemical approach is the simplest and least invasive,” New Scientist reports.

Another scientist, Xiao-Ping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China, recently showed that it is possible to perform a basic head transplant in a mouse, and he’ll try Canavero’s approach in the next few months in mice and monkeys.

But even if the procedure is potentially successful, there’s no guarantee Canavero will find a country that will allow him to attempt the transplant. The U.S. is Canavero’s first choice, but he thinks it will be easier to get approval in Europe.

"The real stumbling block is the ethics," New Scientist quoted Canavero as saying. "Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it."

H/T Sky News

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