Everybody’s favorite Chinese mad scientist is back to give us all the willies!
This time, Dr. Ren Xiaoping, an infamous orthopedic surgeon at the Harbin Medical University, is looking to provide his patient with a brand-new body for his head.
That patient, 62-year-old Wang Huanming, became paralyzed from the neck down after injuring himself while wrestling with a friend six years ago. Here’s how The New York Times describes Ren’s plan to cure Wang of his paralysis:
Remove two heads from two bodies, connect the blood vessels of the body of the deceased donor and the recipient head, insert a metal plate to stabilize the new neck, bathe the spinal cord nerve endings in a gluelike substance to aid regrowth and finally sew up the skin.
Sounds easy enough, right?
Well, it is just these kinds of experimental operations that have medical experts and the general populace alike freaked out about how far China is willing to push the ethical boundaries of medicine and science. Just last year, a team of Chinese scientists in Guangzhou ignited an international backlash after attempting to genetically alter human embryos. Earlier this year, a separate team tried once to do it once again.
However, this time it’s more than just ethical concerns. Most experts agree that at this point a body transplant is simply impossible and would only result in the death of the patient. “At this stage, I would call the attempt stupid rather than crazy,” Dr. Abraham Shaked, a professor of surgery and the director of the Penn Transplant Institute at the University of Pennsylvania said in an email to The New York Times. “Crazy means it may be done. Stupid should not be done.”
However, a surgery being considered ethically questionable, stupid or even impossible has never bothered Ren. He was 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. “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,” Ren said.
Since he’s been back, Ren has done a great deal to earn his title as “China’s Dr. Frankenstein.” He has performed hundreds of head transplant surgeries on rodents, though none of the mice have managed to survive more than one day after surgery. Earlier this year, he even teamed up with Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero to perform a head transplant on a monkey.
While Ren has offered no timetable for his human body transplant surgery, it is this kind of work that contributes to international impressions that “anything goes” in the Chinese operating room.
“The Chinese system is not transparent in any way,” said Arthur L. Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University. “I do not trust Chinese bioethical deliberation or policy. Add healthy doses of politics, national pride and entrepreneurship, and it is tough to know what is going on.”
If you want to know more about what’s going on inside Ren’s head, check out this short video profile made by Max Duncan last year: