In July of 2013, I introduced my readers to one Dr. Sergio Canavero, an Italian surgeon who claimed that it was theoretically possible to transplant a human head.
Well, now he’s getting ready to put his theory where his mouth is. Or maybe it’s someone else’s mouth.
Anyway, he’s teaming up with a Chinese doctor named Ren Xiaoping (pronounced “Ren”) to transplant the head of a Russian computer scientist named Valery Spiridonov (pronounced “the Russian guy”) onto the body of an as-yet-to-be-named donor. Since the operation won’t take place for at least two years, there is plenty of time for that donor to be found. Personally, I’m rooting for Rush Limbaugh.
Dr. Canavero (above), who looks like the mad doctor in every evil scientist movie you’ve ever seen, has undoubtedly chosen to work with Dr. Ren because, unlike the Italian, the Chinese doctor has actually performed head transplants. He specializes in transplanting white mouse heads onto black mouse bodies and vice versa, which, in the case of the Russian guy, may not bode well for Taye Diggs.
The procedure is described thusly in The Daily Mail:
Both donor and patient would have their head severed from their spinal cord at the same time, using an ultra-sharp blade to give a clean cut. The patient’s head would then be placed onto the donor’s body and attached using what Dr Canavero calls his ‘magic ingredient’ – a glue-like substance called polyethylene glycol – to fuse the two ends of the spinal cord together. The muscles and blood supply would be stitched up, before the patient is put into a coma for four weeks to stop them from moving while the head and body heal together. When they wake the patient should be able to move, feel their face and even speak with the same voice.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say Canavero and Ren can superglue all the right vessels and cords and neurons and stuff together so that the patient doesn’t end up squeezing his sphincter every time he speaks.*
Is such an operation something that should be done?
Well, of course, all the naysayers are chiming in, yelling about ethics and making the inevitable comparisons to Dr. Frankenstein. Arthur Caplan, the director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, used highly technical medical terminology in describing Dr Canavero as “nuts.”
But when has ethics ever stood in the way of science?
Ethics certainly doesn’t bother the Russian guy, who suffers from a rare muscle-wasting disease and refuses to quit while he’s a head. “My decision is final,” he said, “and I do not plan to change my mind.”
He’s sure right about that. It’s the donor who will be changing his mind. Literally.
Ren Xiaoping, for his part, is continuing his collage work with mice, occasionally getting one to live an entire day after the surgery. He plans on moving up to primates next. He may even choose to work with stump-tailed macaques because they are indigenous to China and because, that way, he and his patient can be referred to as Ren and Stumpy.
He and Canavero both admit there are many technical difficulties to overcome and that they will even have to design specialized equipment to stand a chance of performing a head transplant on a human. That’s why they’re not planning on doing the transplant until 2017, possibly later if the Russian guy’s health insurance is anything like mine. (“I’m sorry, sir, but our evaluators view head transplants as an experimental procedure, so your claim has been denied. Have you tried ibuprofen?”)
Sure, there are all kinds of negative ramifications to such a surgery, but, as a science fiction fan, I kind of hope Ren and Canavero pull it off.
And glue it back on again.
See you soon.
*I only used that as an example because I was recently in a conversation about a dog that actually does that. And he hasn’t even had his head transplanted.