In past few years’ surgery has been developed to a level that transplant of a body organ like heart, kidney, liver or an eye is a common practice. Now the surgeons are not only thinking but also planning for full body transplant. Although certain ethical and technical hurdles are there but they are optimistic that in coming five years they shall overcome the problems and cross this milestone.
Sergio Canavero, a doctor in Turin, Italy, has drawn up plans to graft a living person’s head on to a donor body and claims the procedures needed to carry out the operation are not far off. He has claimed for years that medical science has advanced to the point that a full body transplant is possible, but the proposal has caused raised eyebrows, horror and profound disbelief in other surgeons. He wanted to use body transplants to prolong the lives of people affected by terminal diseases.
The idea of full-body transplant has been tried before. In 1970, Robert white led a team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US, that tried to transplant the head of one monkey on to the body of another. But the operation was unsuccessful and the monkey could not move its body. Despite Canavero’s enthusiasm, many surgeons and neuroscientists believe massive technical hurdles pushing full body transplants into the distant future. Continued on Page 11
The starkest problem is to reconnect spinal nerves and make them work again. But according to the procedure Canavero outlined this month, doctors would first cool the patient’s head and the donor’s body so their cells do not die during the operation. The neck is then cut through, the blood vessels linked up with thin tubes, and the spinal cord cut with an exceptionally sharp knife to minimise nerve damage. The recipient’s head is then moved on to the donor’s body. The next stage is trickier. Canavero believes that the spinal cord nerves that would allow the recipient’s brain to talk to the donor’s body can be fused together using a substance called polyethylene glycol. To stop the patient moving, they must be kept in a coma for weeks. When they come round, Canavero believes they would be able to speak and feel their face, though he predicts they would need a year of physiotherapy before they could move the body.
Similar efforts are going on in China also, a Chinese surgeon, Dr Xiaoping Ren revealed the details for his plan, which involves removing two heads from two bodies and connecting the donor body to the recipient’s head. A metal plate would be inserted to stabilise the new neck, while the spinal cord nerve endings would be saturated in a glue like substance to help regrowth. Earlier this year, Dr Ren shocked the world when his team had carried out a successful head transplant on a monkey – and that it lived for 20 hours. Dr. Ren is building a team for the world’s first head transplant on a live human being. He told that his team was on the verge of a historic breakthrough. ‘We are getting closer to our goal of a human head transplant,’ he said. ‘We can’t say it will happen tomorrow – but I am not ruling out next year.’ There is also no shortage of willing volunteers. He said: ‘A human head transplant will be a new frontier in science. Some people say it is the last frontier in medicine. It is a very sensitive and very controversial subject but if we can translate it to clinical practice, we can save a lot of lives.’ Prior to operating on a monkey, Dr Ren had conducted operations on 1,000 mice – sometimes grafting a black mouse’s head on to a white mouse’s body. None has survived for more than a day. According to Dr Ren, the transplant on a monkey takes 20 hours, and he expects a human head transplant to take 30 to 40 hours. Calling for more support for his work from the public, Dr Ren said the issue of ethics was secondary to helping a person’s life.
The writer is a scientist and chemist and Rector at University of Lahore . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org