The first human head transplant has been suggested and conceived by an Italian neurosurgeon named Sergio Canavero.
It all began with a comic book. When Canavero was 9, he visited a newsstand in Turin, Italy, to buy a comic book. As a bullied child, he identified with Peter Parker and found himself deep into the world of Marvel. On that particular day, he picked up Issue 51 of Marvel Team-up. In that issue, Dr. Strange tells Spider-Man and Iron Man that, "I myself have surgically rejoined several neurolinkages...the nerve endings have been fused, the healing process begun."
That was Canavero's first experience with the idea of spinal cord fusion. It would not be the last. Canavero is now 51. Three years ago, he announced that he had figured out how to perform a human head transplant in a two part procedure. The volunteer is a 31 year old Russian with a muscle-wasting disorder. Canavero sees the man as a brave pioneer, much the same as the first man in space.
But there are many who see his plan as pure fantasy, among other things. In fact, his real life nemesis comes in the person of Arthur Caplan, the founder of the Division of Biolethics at New York University's School of Medicine. "I think he's a charlatan, a quack and a self-promoter," says Caplan, who has also labelled Canavero as a "Looney Tune" who's "peddling false hope."
It seems that Dr. Canavero is quite polarizing. People either see him as an outlandish Dr. Frankenstein without regard for risk, or an innovator willing to try what others consider impossible.
Canavero wonders why, in a world of heart, lung, kidney, uterus and hand transplants, we can't also transplant the human head. He points to the fact that in 1970, American neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White successfully transplanted a head to another body when he operated on a Rhesus monkey. Modern spinal cord fusion did not exist, and the monkey only lived for a few healthy days. But in 1999, White predicted that what "has always been the stuff of science fiction-the Frankenstein legend-will become a clinical reality early in the 21st century."
Canavero's outlined his plan for the procedure in a June, 2013 paper in the journal Surgical Neurology International. In 2015, with the volunteer subject present, he gave the keynote address before the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeon's 39 annual conference. He outlined a 36-hour, $20 million procedure involving at least 150 people, including doctors, nurses, technicians, psychologists and virtual reality engineers.
Despite the thoroughness of the presentation, both Canavero and the patient volunteering for the procedure faced much criticism and doubt. The patient fielded a question about the ethics of such surgery by asking if anyone would like to be in his shoes: needing assistance with all human processes and living a life without sex. The Russian said he would rather risk death in this experimental surgery to achieve a higher quality of life than suffer the burdens of his current existence.
Later, Canavaro said, "If he is going to die, he is the only one who can decide."
Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China is Canavaro's collaborator. He recently completely a monkey head transplant. And C-Yoon Kim of the Konkuk University Medical School in South Korea published a study in the journal called Spinal Cord that showed how his team re-established motor movements in mice whose neck spinal cords have been severed and re-fused.
Dr. Michael Sarr, professor emeritus of surgery at that Mayo Clinic and co-editor-in-chief of Surgery, recently accepted one of Canavero's head transplant papers for publication. "He's a little bit fantastic, but he's a serious guy," said Sarr. "He's not just a showboat. This is not science fiction. This is now science. There's experimental work that supports the concept of nerve membrane fusion."
But Dr. John Adler of Stanford University's School of Medicine said, "Conceptually, much of this could work, but the most favorable outcome will be little more than a Christopher Reeve level of function." He was referring to the actor who played Superman who was left paralyzed from the neck down after a horse-riding accident.
Which means the volunteer may end up with a body that functions not much better than the one he left. Adler says he thinks that each piece of Canavero's method is viable from a strictly technical sense. But there's simply too much risk of failure.
Other skeptics are even more outspoken. Dr. Lorenzo Pinessi is the director of the Neurological Clinic in Italy's University of Turn. He says, "In my opinion, this procedure has no feasibility at all. It is demented."
As we all know, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's famous story did not end well.
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