The idea of inserting a human head onto a different body is one that would be thought to belong in the pages of a horror novel, not an academic journal. However, it would seem that an Italian surgeon, Sergio Canavero is presenting himself as a modern day Dr. Frankenstein. He suggests that the operation could be carried out as soon as 2017, heralding his radical surgery as a procedure that could save thousands from degenerative and terminal diseases.

If it were to go ahead, it would not be the first time something like this had been attempted. In 1954, a Soviet surgeon named Vladimir Demikhov transplanted the head of a dog on to the body of another; resulting in the death of the dog six days later due to an immune rejection. In 1970 doctors in Ohio led by Robert White, carried out a similar procedure with monkeys.The resulting creations died nine days after the transplantation, again due to a rejection by the host’s immune system.

Canavero’s ideas are even more ambitious than his predecessors. Not only does he intend to use humans in the operation but he also wishes to reattach the spinal cords of his patients.Though this has not been done before, he suggests that treatments have advanced far enough to make this part of the procedure possible.The transplant would involve cooling the body of the donor and the recipient’s head in order to allow the cells to be able to survive in anoxic conditions. Both heads would then be removed and major blood vessels would be linked using minuscule tubes.

After attaching the severed head to the body each end of the spinal cord would be fused together. In typical Italian fashion, the surgeon describes these spinal cords as being like “strands of spaghetti that can be reattached to each other once broken”. This would involve the use of polyethylene glycol, a compound which promotes the fat in the cord membranes to fuse together and form a mesh. The patient would then be stitched up and placed into an induced coma for up to a month. While implanted electrodes provide a regular electrical stimulation to the spinal cord, in order to strengthen new nerve connections. Canavero speculates that once out of the coma, the patient would be able to talk in their original voice, feel their face and even move it.

However, it could take up to a year for the person to walk again and require extensive physiotherapy. Many experts have called Canavero’s proposal appear to be too optimistic;with some stating that there are massive technical hurdles to overcome and that there is a high likelihood that the head may be rejected by the immune system of the body, even with modern immunosuppressive drugs.

Some have called the ethics of the procedure into question. If any patients were to go on to reproduce, the children would be biologically related to the deceased donor and not of the recipient. Others have also questioned whether the recipient would truly be the same person as several religious groups believe that one’s soul is contained within the body.

While this ground breaking idea could prove to be a major advancement in the world of medicine, the buzz it has created may be premature. Indeed, we must ask ourselves a difficult question: is society ready for a real life Frankenstein’s monster?

 

Date: MARCH 10, 2015

Image: https://wellcomeimages.org

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