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Head Transplant to Take Place in December 2017

By Ada Castro Madrid
On April 27, 2017

Photo courtesy of: Brock Health Magazine 

It’s not a sci-fi film or a cartoon. It’s our real world: the first head transplant, ladies and gentlemen.

This surgery is not only revolutionary and surreal, but it also attempts to solve two of the many problems that medicine still can’t quite figure out: Brain death and genetic degenerative terminal diseases. Italian neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero made the world stop in 2013 when he announced he had started the recruiting process for this surgery.

The first person he chose to be on his team is Dr. Xiaoping Ren from China and they found a volunteer patient to perform the procedure. The patient’s name is Valery Spiridonov from Russia.

Spiridonov suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman Disease, a disorder that is often fatal and breaks down muscles, nerve cells and the spinal cord. This is Spiridonov’s last chance as he is confined to a wheelchair, and consequently death, if this surgery is not successful.

The transplant is to take place in December this year, and doctors expect it to cost around $11 million. It will last at least 36 hours, and about 150 other doctors and nurses will be involved in the surgery.

They released some basic steps regarding the actual procedure. They will be using Spiridonov’s head to attach it to a donated body of a brain-dead person. First, Spiridonov’s head will be cool down to five degrees as well as the donor’s body.

Once the head has been detached from Spiridonov’s body and the donated body is ready to go, surgeons have only minutes to connect the spinal cords and be able to save Spiridonov’s life. This is the trickiest part as there are no records showing a successful spinal cord attachment. They plan on using polyethylene glycol to “glue” the different cords together.

Then the doctors will join the blood and muscles supplies from the body to the head, and Spiridonov would remain in a coma for three or four weeks to allow for healing without the risk of movement. Meanwhile, implanted electrodes would be use to stimulate new nerve connections in the spinal cord.

According to a CBS News article in 2016, Dr. Canavero’s hopes are surprisingly high, as he says the surgery has a “90 percent plus” chance of success.

Dr. Thomas Wiese, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Ottawa University, does not agree with Canavero’s prognostic.

“While all scientists seek to advance their area of expertise and do experiments never done before, this procedure seems beyond hope, as it lies far beyond the state-of-the-art. There are far too many nerves in a spinal column to reconnect individually, and allowing the nerves to “glue themselves together” cannot possibly work, or we would be able to treat paraplegics now.  We need a multitude more experiments to work … before this procedure would be approved in a civilized world,” Wiese says.

Even though Canavero, Ren, Spiridonov and their team are hopeful, the international community does not seem to have the same faith in them, just like Wiese. Many institutions have declared the procedure as unethical due to its potential damaging or revolutionary consequences, not only for Spiridonov, but for humanity.

“From a science perspective, I hope it’s successful,” says OU sophomore biology major Jose Ventura. “I feel like though it will be a very difficult task to accomplish. It gives hope for advancing the medical field, obviously if it is successful.”

Although Ventura is a bit more hopeful than Wiese, he still disagrees with Canavero’s success percentage prediction. Ventura believes the chances are much lower.

“Putting aside my own hopes, I don’t think the chances of him succeeding are 90 percent because this has never been done before,” Ventura says. 

Regardless, he expresses his excitement to see how this turns out.

There are several implications to take into account when talking about this surgery. For instance, our kind has studied for years the mystery of the soul: Where does it lie? Can it be transferred? Will the patient still be the patient who provided the head? Or the one who provided the body? Or will he be a completely new and different person? There is no way of telling what identity concerns should be prevented as this has never happened before.

Furthermore, families of possible body donors contemplate a different side of the story. Will the reproductive rights and genes of the new person (head plus body) be of he who has the head or he who donated the body?

Not only does this surgery bring questions about the most philosophically challenging topics in human history, but a question to humanity itself: Will Canavero open the door for immortality?

If you have an opinion regarding this revolutionary procedure, don’t forget to share and comment on our social media sites. We’d love to hear your thoughts! 

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