According to a controversial Italian doctor, the world’s first human head transplant has been carried out on a corpse in China. He and his team are now ready to perform the surgery on a living person.
Dr. Sergio Canavero, chief of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, said the operation was carried out by a team led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren. The team last year successfully grafted a head onto a monkey’s body.
“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done. A full head swap between brain-dead organ donors is the next stage,” Canavero said at a press conference in Vienna.
“And that is the final step for the formal head transplant for a medical condition which is imminent,” said Canavero, who gained a mix of fame and notoriety in 2015 for his Frankenstein-like plans to achieve his feat within two years.
Canavero said the transplant by the surgeons at Harbin Medical University shows that his techniques for reconnecting the spine, nerves and blood vessels to allow two bodies to live together will work.
Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from a muscle-wasting disease, volunteered to become the first head transplant patient, but the team said the first recipient would likely be Chinese because the chance of a Chinese donor body will be higher.
Canavero, claims to have successfully carried out the surgery on rats and monkey. Scientific papers are detailing the procedure on the corpse, as well as more details of the first live human transplant, will be released in the next few days.
Canavero said a live operation would take place in China because his efforts to get backing for the project were dismissed by the medical communities in the US and Europe.
“The Americans did not understand,” Canavero said.
Canavero plans to sever the spinal chords of the donor and recipient with a diamond blade. To protect the recipient’s brain during the transfer, it will be cooled to a state of deep hypothermia, he said.
He said that his team had rehearsed his techniques with human cadavers in China, but there are otherwise no known human trials.
Most medical experts say the procedure is fraught with danger and profound biomedical ethical questions.
Dr. James Giordano, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, said that not enough rigorous study had been conducted ahead of such a procedure. He said patients would better serve if Canavero focused his efforts on spinal reconstruction, not transplants.
He did, however, give Canavero some credit for his pioneering work.
“He’s run the ethical flag up the poles and said, ‘Look, I’m not an ethicist, I’m a neurologist, and this may be an avant-garde technique, I recognize there is a high possibility of failure, but this is the only way we can push the envelope and probe the cutting edge to determine what works, what doesn’t and why,’” Giordano said.
Assya Pascalev, a biomedical ethicist at Howard University in Washington, said there are major unanswered questions about the identity and rights of the recipient.
“It’s not just about a head adjusting to a new body. We might be dealing with a whole new person,” she said.
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