Despite widespread skepticism from the medical community and abject terror from everyone else, a pair of surgeons are pressing on with their plans to perform the world’s first human head transplant surgery in where else but China.
Back in 2015, Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero and maverick Chinese orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ren Xiaoping of Harbin Medical University announced that they were teaming up to perform the controversial operation in two years time. They are now hoping to somewhat stick to schedule and bring their project to some sort of fruition.
The surgeons have announced that they rehearsed the procedure last week by performing an 18-hour trial run on human corpses in which they claim to have successfully reconnected the spinal cord and blood vessels of the head of one cadaver with those on the body of another.
They have said that this success shows that the procedure is possible. Soon, the pair will publish the results of the trial and announce the date of the operation in which they will attach a disease-free head to the healthy body of a brain-dead patient. The procedure is estimated to take more than 24 hours and cost up to $100 million.
Once again, the duo’s work has been met with criticism from nearly everyone in the medical community, most of whom say that the surgery simply cannot be completed medically — and even if it could, it still ethically shouldn’t be.
Because of the medical and moral issues surrounding their work, the two have been barred from trying out their procedure in the United States or Europe. However, China has no such scruples, something that Canavero believes will help the country scale its way back to the top.
“Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to restore China to greatness. He wants to make it the sole superpower in the world. I believe he is doing it,” Canavero said, adding that China’s willing attitude to the surgery is one example of how it will overtake the US.
Meanwhile, Ren has defended the procedure by pointing out that only 60 years ago, similar attacks were leveled at those who were pioneering kidney transplants, emphasizing that many procedures that used to be described as unethical are now routine, while also highlighting how head transplants would completely change life as we know it — curing many previously incurable conditions.
In the past, Canavero and Ren have performed head transplants on a monkey and mice, but with decidely mixed results, as neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains in the Guardian:
While the monkey head did apparently survive the procedure, it never regained consciousness, it was only kept alive for 20 hours for “ethical reasons” and there was no attempt made at connecting the spinal cord, so even if the monkey had survived long-term it would have been paralysed for life. So, it was a successful procedure, if you consider paralysis, lack of consciousness and a lifespan of less than a day as indicators of “success”.
There was also his “successful” rat head transplant, which involved grafting a severed rat head onto a different rat, a living one that still had its head. Exactly how this counts as a “transplant” is anyone’s guess. It’s adding a (functionally useless) appendage onto an otherwise healthy subject.
However, questionable results and ethics have never bothered Ren. He was famously part of the team that performed the first hand transplant in the US in 1999. After spending 16 years in the US, Ren returned to his home in Harbin in 2012, brought back by the promise of government financial support for his research. Since then, he has done much to earn his title as “China’s Dr. Frankenstein.”
“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,” he said.