It’s not often that you wake up and see your family name plastered across news boards, much less in reference to controversial medical procedures, but this morning proved to be just that for me. Italian neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero of the University of Turin (and the Canavero/Cannavaro/Canavesio relative tree) believes he has figured out how to perform a head transplant.
[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B003G4IM4S” locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51DvMNRLSrL._SL160_.jpg” width=”160″]He recently published a project proposal in the the Surgical Neurology International medical journal, where he details the “Head Anastomosis Venture” – cleverly given the acronym moniker ‘HEAVEN’. In this procedure, the head and spine (taken from a deceased donor) would first be cooled to 18 degrees Celcius. A “clean-cut” would then be made with an “ultra-sharp blade” that would leave the two severed spinal cords in a suitable condition for re-attachment. The severed head could then be fused onto the new body via spinal chord using chitosan-PEG glue (an inorganic polymer), the arteries, nerves, trachea, esophagus, and skin connected and sewn, and then the patient would be fitted with a cervical collar and kept sedated for a few days. Afterwards, the patient would begin physiotherapy and be administered antibiotics as needed, simple as that.
Though Dr. Canavero’s procedure could seem far fetched, it is described in simple, step-by-step terms. The conclusion of his paper also details some of the potential difficulties, but he has confidence that it is a “feasible enterprise”, and notes Dr. Robert White, who attached the head of a rhesus monkey to the body of another in 1970.
[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B006299OYG” locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/31-sdvUmDAL._SL160_.jpg” width=”87″]Completely intrigued by the whole idea in general, I tracked the good doctor down and asked him a few questions.
1.) What is the next step?
“In HEAVEN, the cord is not injured but simply severed with a custom made ultra-thin blade, that will be minimally damaging and at that in a manner totally different from [a] clinical spinal injury,” he stated. “The next step will be rather straightforward: to achieve chemo-fusion on the severed cord of a brain dead organ donor before donation, try out chemo-fusion and electrical stimulation. There is no problem indeed, (as) it is ethical and stirs up no controversy. Once this is done, we will need a hospital, funds, EthCom greenlight and there we go.” In a nod to the future of medicine, he added; “Of course, HEAVEN can be retooled to become a life extension paradigm.”
2.) How has it been received by the public?
“The public has been take aback, and opinions differ, but I would say that for the most part they are – if not favorable – at least not negatory. What is truly cool is the scientific community that has been blown away, big time. Why? Because basically neuro-biologists working in the field of neuro-regeneration will have to admit that they got it wrong, and see their work funded by NIH – perhaps. One of these is Dr. Silver, [who] I read about on CBS news, who barks out – even lies- scorning Dr. [Robert] White, who is dead and cannot answer. These people will have serious trouble in justifying their (useless) work. A case of sour grapes…”
Dr. Canavero concluded with a burst of confidence towards his work, stating; “In 1934, Albert Einstein denied that nuclear energy would ever become feasible, because it meant being able to manipulate the atom at will. Fermi proved him wrong with the Manhattan project. So here’s my motto, drawn from the British Special Forces SAS: Who Dares Wins! Too many are waiting for a cure and medicine has failed in too many ways.”
[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0465058957″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41EpfTRu1bL._SL160_.jpg” width=”104″]Future Implications: While we can only wait and see if this procedure will become a reality within the next few years, I am both fascinated and eager to see how it plays out. The attitudes of humans towards their biology can be extremely fickle, but in the ongoing fight against the disease of death, I can only imagine this will change. While ‘Frankensteining’ might have been a term used to shed a grotesque and disdainful light on a procedure like this one, I would argue that internal replacements, such as heart, kidney, liver and even face transplants aren’t very many steps away in terms of cellular construction. There is also the new institution of robotic body parts, which is changing our view on the body already, as our main issues with transplants simply has to do with what is biologically en vogue. This is, of course, in exception to the brain, which makes this proposal all the more interesting – would your consciousness be altered if you gained a new body entirely? And if so, will this technology be upon us within the next decade? Who knows. HEAVEN could be closer than we think.
Image Source: Flickr