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The World’s First Human Head Transplant: ​Fountain of Youth or Scientific Abuse?

This upcoming December, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero plans to achieve the impossible. The doctor recently revealed plans to undertake a feat so dangerous and unpredictable that it has never been attempted before in the history of mankind. Canavero will pioneer the world’s first ever human head transplant, an extensive 36 hour operation that will require the meticulous collaboration of roughly 150 surgeons and will cost upwards of $20 million. If successful, this would provide a pivotal medical breakthrough that would permanently alter the realm of modern science. Nonetheless, this extremely risky surgery has clear potential for disaster, which has prompted members of the scientific and medical communities to raise serious bioethical concerns — renewing the debate on how to tackle the moral challenges imposed by modern science.

image2Dr. Canavero, who the media has likened to Frankenstein, has been researching and strategizing the project for over thirty years after being inspired by a semi-successful head transplant of a rhesus monkey in 1970. He even has a name for it — HEAVEN, an abbreviation for “head anastomosis venture” that is, perhaps ironically, reminiscent of death. If approved, Canavero will operate on a 31-year old terminally ill Russian patient named Valery Spiridonov, who has volunteered for the surgery. Spiridonov suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a severe form of spinal atrophy that has bound him to a wheelchair for life. Spiridonov has acknowledged that he understands the risks of the controversial operation, which involves cooling his head down to 50℉, carefully cutting his spinal cord with a $200,000 diamond nanoblade, and then within 60 seconds, fusing his spinal cord with that of a brain-dead organ donor using polyethylene glycol. Assuming he survives the reattachment of the spinal cords and that his head is not rejected by his new body, Spiridonov will remain in a medically induced coma for the next three to four weeks until he is fully healed. The surgery will require accessing one of the world’s most high tech operating theaters, presumably in China or “another country outside of Europe or the United States, as it would not be approved in the Western world” (CBS). Matthew Crocker, a consultant neurosurgeon from the UK, expressed his skepticism by stating that although “every step of the surgery is possible” in theory, “a human spinal cord has never been successfully reattached before” (The Merkle). If the donor body rejects the transplanted head, Spiridonov would be paralyzed and would gradually suffocate to death.

The majority of neurosurgeons have criticized Canavero for his recklessness, claiming that even if the patient survives the unpredictable surgery, it could potentially drive Spiridonov to “a level of insanity never before experienced in human history” (TechSpot). According to Dr. Hunt Batjer, the president of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, “I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death” (CNN). Others argue that Canavero does not have any legitimate research or evidence that verify his claims about the surgery. The most recent documented attempt of a similar experiment was 47 years ago, when Robert White successfully transplanted a monkey head onto a different monkey’s body — an experiment that was only marginally successful. The donor body ultimately rejected the transplanted head. As a result, the monkey’s spinal cord was never reattached and the monkey was left paralyzed and unable to breathe. It only survived nine days post-op. According to Dr. Canavero, his team at the Harbin Medical University in China carried out a similar experiment. Although the team ostensibly had no qualms about decapitating a harmless monkey, 20 hours after the successful transplant, euthanized the monkey “for ethical reasons” (Telegraph). Canavero also alleges to have successfully transplanted a dog’s head, and to have reconnected the severed spinal cords of mice. He believes that recent technological advancements have made this feasible to be applied to human beings as well (Quartz Media).

Besides all of the obvious technical uncertainties involved with the experiment, it raises many questions concerning bioethics. Scientists have denounced Canavero’s “Frankenstein” experiment as being “junk science” (The Washington Post). Many argue that it is irresponsible of Canavero to create false hope for people like Spiridonov, who could in actuality face adverse psychological reactions as a result. Italian bioethicists Anto Cartolovni and Antonio Spagnolo note that, “Canavero is presuming that transplanting Spiridonov’s head and brain onto another body would automatically transplant his whole self with his mind, personality, and consciousness” (CBS). One issue Spiridonov could face is suffering an identity crisis. “The body is a real part in the formation of human self,” according to Cartolovni and Spagnolo; “therefore, the person will encounter huge difficulties to incorporate the new body in its already existing body schema and body image that would have strong implications on human identity.” Another issue of bioethics that arises as a result of the surgery is the idea of reproducing using someone else’s body. If Spiridonov decided to have children after the surgery, his offspring would have the donor body’s DNA. Genetically, they wouldn’t even be related to him. What if the biological family wants to be involved? Do they have any rights to their blood relatives? These are all questions that remain unclear. Other bioethicists worry about the ethics of animal testing. One biologist, Paul Myers, described HEAVEN as not only being unrealistic, but also as animal cruelty. “Try it with monkeys first,” says Myers. “But he can’t: the result would be, at best, a shambling horror, an animal driven mad with pain and terror, crippled and whimpering, and a poor advertisement for his experiment. And most likely what he’d have is a collection of corpses that suffered briefly before expiring” (Brain Decoder).

Another view is in the case that the radical experiment is a failure, it would result in, not only the death of Spiridonov, but also a colossal waste of organs that could have been donated to other people “who needed a heart or liver transplant to save their lives” (CBS). On the other hand, if it were successful, scientists would have the ability replace a patient’s “entire complement of organs, their immune system, their joints, and everything else that causes problems as we age” (Extreme Tech). However, this is a slippery slope that has the potential for abuse. The notion of wealthy people being able to “purchase” immortality by simply jumping from body to body whenever one gets old or starts to fail, is a terrifying thought. (The thought of a crusty, decrepit old Donald Trump eternally inhabiting the body of a 20-year old, for instance, is appalling). There are certainly better ways to invest $20 million into the field of medical research that don’t involve cutting off people’s heads and gluing them back together. The money could be used to fund other projects, such as stem cell research that could be used to cure my father’s MS or Spiridonov’s Werdnig-Hoffman disease. There have been several medical breakthroughs in the scientific community within the past week that will save many lives; for instance, scientists from the University of Bristol recently made a “significant leap towards mass-producing red blood cells suitable for donation” by developing a method to produce an unlimited supply of artificial blood to aid in blood transfusions for people with very rare blood types (BBC News). Similarly, researchers at BU just figured out how to hack a human cell and “reprogram it like a computer” which could pose an inexpensive alternative to current methods of analyzing blood in order to diagnose various diseases (Wired). Another notable innovation recently took place at WPI, where group of graduate students discovered how to transform a spinach leaf into beating human heart tissue in order to facilitate tissue regeneration (National Geographic). While Canavero has spent the last thirty years playing Frankenstein, he could have devoted those years to researching something that is not described by other scientists as being unethical and “grotesque” (BBC News).

image3Auguste Comte once stated, “the general situation of the sciences of politics and morals today is exactly analogous to that of astrology in relation to astronomy, of alchemy in relation to chemistry, and the cure-all in relation to medicine” (Levin). In today’s rapidly evolving technological world, the field of bioethics is becoming increasingly significant and more polarized than ever. Science can be used for good just as easily as it can be abused, and it’s very easy for the line to get blurred between innovation and bad science. Just as the world saw with the eugenics movement of 20th-century Europe, which legitimized white supremacy — scientifically, of course — it is not difficult to concoct scientific justifications for unethical behavior. As we saw back then, just because we have the scientific tools to do something, does not mean we should do it. George W. Bush once reminded the country that “in the excitement of discovery, we must never forget that mankind is defined not by intelligence alone, but by conscience” (Levin). 100 years ago, it was the forced sterilization of the dregs of society — women, minorities, the disabled, and transgender people. Today, scientific topics such as stem cell research, IVF, “designer babies,” abortion, human cloning, and euthanasia are all sources of contentious debate. The implications of accomplishing an unprecedented human head transplant are certainly astounding — virtually any disease would be able to be cured besides neurological disorders, granted you can afford the surgery. This would mean great things for paraplegics with enough viable spinal cord to be operated on and for people who suffer from muscular atrophy.

Ultimately, in the end it doesn’t really matter to Canavero whether Spiridonov lives or dies. Echoing the chilling words of Mary Shelley, “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of knowledge I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over our elemental foes of our face” (Shelley).

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