July 2, 2013
Head Transplants Not Just Science Fiction Anymore, Says Italian Neurosurgeon
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Are you sick of being out of shape? Just get a new body.
In his paper, Canavero argued spinal cord surgery has advanced to the point where attaching a human head onto a new body Frankenstein-style is actually medically possible. He also outlined the procedure, noting that an ultra-sharp cut through the spinal cord would be necessary to enable a later reattachment.
"It is this 'clean cut' (that is) the key to spinal cord fusion, in that it allows proximally severed axons to be 'fused' with their distal counterparts," Canavero wrote.
Following this precise cut, the procedure entails mechanical fusion between the donor and recipient using plastics like polyethylene glycol (PEG), Canavero said. The combination of a clean cut and tight synthesis enables the body to naturally fix other severed connections, he added.
Similar procedures were famously attempted during the 1970s with rhesus monkeys. While the Franken-monkeys did show signs of organ function, the primates ended up paralyzed below the point of the procedure.
As some might expect, the paper drew an incredulous reaction from parts of the medical community.
"This sounds like something from a horror movie," Dr. Calum Mackellar, from the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics told The Telegraph.
Canavero, however, does have scientific research on his side. As recently as last week, scientists at Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic said they have been able to restore significant mobility to rats that had their spinal cords severed.
The rhesus monkey, Cleveland Clinic and Canavero's procedure all have elements similar to them. As described by Canavero, the procedure begins with both patients in the same operating room. Next, the doctors must cool the donor head to between 54 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The surgeons must quickly sever both heads simultaneously and reattach the donor head to the circulatory system of the donor body within 60 minutes. During this part of the procedure, both the donor body and donor head must remain chilled, and total cardiac arrest must be induced in the patient.
After the doctors make all necessary connections, the patient's heart can be restarted and the surgical team can move on to restarting other vital systems or organs, including the spinal cord.
As expected, a fantastical procedure like this has many barriers, including those of an ethical and financial nature. However, Canavero said, "It is argued that several up to now hopeless medical conditions might benefit from such a procedure."
Some have speculated this type of procedure could be used to offer incurable paraplegics the chance to regain mobility. Those with advanced muscular dystrophy could also theoretically benefit from this type of transplant.
Logistics and financial barriers could be a problem, however. Canavero suggested a team of 100 doctors would be necessary to carry out the procedure he outlined, with a cost around $13 million.
"This is no longer science fiction. This could be done today - now. If this operation is done it will provide a few people with a substantial amount of extra life," he said. "The only reason I have not gone further is funding."