Since July 2013, US-trained doctor Ren Xiaoping and his team at Harbin Medical University have successfully completed nearly a thousand head transplant operations on mice. The white mice, with their new brown heads, have been able to breathe on their own after surgery.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine 15 years ago, 53-year-old Ren now lives in his hometown of Harbin, where he spends most of his time doing research while his wife and two daughters remain in the US.
Ren told reporters that one of the reasons he returned to China was because of the government’s financial support for medical research. “China right now, they want to go to the top. If you think there’s a really great benefit in research, China can put resources to support you,” said Ren, who’s received a total of US$1.6 million from government and university grants.
If Ren’s transplants can be perfected, they could potentially benefit patients with cancer, spinal-cord injuries or muscle-deteriorating diseases. However, there’s still a long way before human head transplants are possible. Ren hopes to perform head transplants on monkeys this summer, marking the first time the operation will be carried out on primates.
Ethical controversies aside, surgeons face a number of incredible challenges when carrying out the operation, including keeping the brain of the recipient oxygenated during surgery and preventing rejection by the body’s immune system.
“We want to do this clinically, but we have to make an animal model with long-term survival first”, said the Chinese surgeon. “Currently, I am not confident to say I can do a human transplant.”
Check out videographer Max Duncan’s profile on Ren to hear more about his thoughts on the future of head transplant surgery.
[Image via WashingtonTimes]
By Sharon Choi