Way back when you were in high school, in that biology class you took that equally amazed and grossed you out, you may remember about learning about quite a few kooky scientific experiments that were actually conducted. Out of the oddest, the most disturbing, the bizarre, Vladimir Demikhov’s experimentation with dog head transplantation definitely tops the list. Conducted in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, Demikhov’s subject soon died due to immune reactions. But his research proved instrumental to opening the doors to the science of organ transplant. After successful human heart transplants, scientists were ready to return to the idea of head transplants, and so they did. To date, head transplants have been conducted with both monkeys and dogs, with limited success. But as intriguing as these innovations may seem, many scientists decry the idea, arguing that the procedures are too risky and, in some cases, completely unethical. Well, of course. The entire concept seems completely bonkers, doesn’t it? Well, you’ll be glad to know the next target for head transplants: humans.
Yes, that’s right. Just last year, Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero made public his plans to conduct the first human head transplant in December 2017. He immediately caused a massive sensation in the scientific community, and the reception was both positive and negative. However, most deemed the plan a hoax until the test subject, a Russian man by the name of Valery Spiridonov, confirmed Canavero’s plans by revealing himself as the volunteer subject. Now, Canavero moves forward, having recently recruited Chinese neurosurgeon Dr. Xioping Ren onto his team, and the science community holds its breath, having nothing else to do but wait and see what results occur.
When the world first found out that a living, breathing, fully-functional human being had actually volunteered for an experiment of this gruesome a nature, it was natural for most people to be shocked. What rational person on this great, green Earth would volunteer for a death wish? But reporters from The Atlantic chronicled Valery’s story and how he came to make this shocking decision.
Valery Spiridonov is a thirty-year-old Russian programmer who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease. The disease, a rare form of spinal atrophy, is a genetic disorder, and is usually fatal to those afflicted. In basic terms, the disease causes a massive breakdown of muscle tissue and kills vital cells in the brain and spinal cord that enable bodily movement. Thus, he has limited freedom of movement, relying on a wheelchair (as his limbs are dangerously stunted) and he can’t do much more than feed himself, occasionally type, and control his wheelchair through use of a joystick. Due to the grim nature of Valery’s current state of living, The Atlantic reports that Valery was rather optimistic about the whole affair, stating, “Removing all the sick parts but the head would do a great job in my case…I couldn’t see any other way to treat myself.”
“A fresh cadaver might act as a proxy for a live subject as long as a window of opportunity is respected (a few hours).” Confident words from a confident Canavero; he and his team have already devised a seemingly fool-proof sketch for how the transplant is supposed to run, and has detailed in several published papers by the Surgical Neurology International journal.
After receiving permission from Spiridonov’s family (as well as the other volunteer’s family, who still has yet to be named) to go through with the surgery, Valery’s body would begin to be prepped. His body would be cooled down to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in order to prevent major brain tissue death, thus making the entire affair extremely time-intensive. Then, both patient’s spinal cords would be cut at the same time, and their heads would be completely severed from their bodies. Spiridonov’s head would then be transported via a custom-made crane onto the other donor’s neck, and then the spinal cord would be repaired using PEG, polyethylene glycol, a chemical that is known to harbor spinal cord cell growth.
After matching the donor body’s muscles and blood supply with Spiridonov’s head, Valery would be under an induced coma from somewhere between three to four weeks to prevent any locomotive complications as he healed. And then? The surgeons can only wait and see.
Though very precise in layout, the entire transplant would require a massive amount of money and time; it has been estimated that around eighty surgeons and tens of millions of dollars would be needed to make this transplant “work”, if approved. However, Canavero remains confident, stating that the procedure boasts a 90 percent plus success rate.
As remarkable as the experiments seem in theory, the scientific community hasn’t exactly been very supportive towards the idea.
But besides that, not even people close to Valery support the idea 100 percent. Valery has revealed that his girlfriend is extremely against the entire operation.
“She supports me in all what I do, but she doesn't think that I need to change, she accepts me the way I am. She doesn't think that I need the surgery.” He states, but then he explains his primary reason for wanting the whole procedure done. “My motivation personally is about improving my own life conditions and to go to the stage where I will be able to take care of myself, where I will be independent from other people…I need people to help me every day, even twice a day because I need someone to take me off my bed and put me in my wheelchair, so it makes my life pretty dependable on other people and if there will be a way to change this I believe it should be tried.”
But many scientific authorities disagree. “Just to do the experiments is unethical,” proclaims Dr. Jerry Silver, a neurologist at Case Western Reserve. And many others do share this sentiment, many referring to the planned experiment as “The Next Frankenstein”.
And then there’s the legal repercussions. If the transplant does somehow work, and Valery reproduces with that body, who’s the biological father: Valery, or the original donor? It’s a lot to swallow, but Valery is looking forward to the future with a smile.
While it’s a lot for Valery to consider, the possibility of a successful human head transplant leaves the neurological community with many extra bites to chew on. If Valery’s transplant is somehow successful, many more future options can be considered, primarily for those with chronic illnesses or physical conditions like that of Valery himself. However, with how much the current projected cost already is, the first thing scientists will probably first focus on is getting the cost down and seeing if the option itself is actually plausible, cost-wise. And if that is an option, then before making the idea marketable, a more efficient way to perform the critical procedure will be researched in order to maintain efficiency while keeping effectivity.
Of course, these aforementioned theories are only just that, theories. But, for sure, one thing is certain: the entire world is waiting to see just what might happen next. Isaiah Rodriguez, a sophomore at Orlando Science School who suffers from scoliosis (an additional curvature to the back) states, “If this a possibility in the future, then maybe all of us genetic sufferers may finally find some peace.”
And maybe he is right. Who knows for sure? Only time will tell.