announcing plan for first head transplant in man
Added: (Sun Jun 09 2013)
Pressbox (Press Release) -
EXECUTIVE PROJECT FOR THE FIRST HEAD TRANSPLANT IN MAN
The June issue of Surgical Neurology International, the renowned open-access neurosurgical journal, to be released shortly, carries the executive project for the first head transplant in man, code-named HEAVEN/GEMINI (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion) (download the article at www.surgicalneurologyint.com) . According to the anonymous reviewers, the article “opens a brand new field for contemporary medical science”.
The project is authored by Turin (Italy)’s neuroscientist and functional neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero, who made the headlines in December 2008 for performing the first successful bifocal cortical stimulation for the vegetative state.
Dr Canavero is author of Central Pain Syndrome (Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2011) monograph and editor of Textbook of Therapeutic Cortical Stimulation (Nova Science, 2009).
Since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankestein in 1818, head transplantation has existed in the realm of science fiction, until US neurosurgeon Robert Joseph White (1926 – 2010) performed an operation to transplant the head of one monkey onto another's body on March 14, 1970 at the Metrohealth Medical Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, in a 18-hour long surgery. Unfortunately, the technology to repair the severed spinal cord was unavailable and so the monkey could not regain motor independence. Controversy followed and strong opposition mounted from several quarters. However, Dr White maintained that human head transplantation could take place early in the XXI century.
According to Dr Canavero, the technical hurdles have now been cleared thanks to cell engineering. As described in his paper, the keystone to successful spinal cord linkage is the possibility to fuse the severed axons in the cord by exploiting the power of membrane fusogens/sealants. Agents exist that can reconstitute the membranes of a cut axon and animal data have accrued since 1999 that restoration of axonal function is possible. One such molecule is poly-ethylene glycol (PEG), a widely used molecule with many applications from industrial manufacturing to medicine, including as an excipient in many pharmaceutical products. Another is chitosan, a polysaccharide used in medicine and other fields.
HEAVEN capitalizes on a minimally traumatic cut of the spinal cord using an ultra-sharp blade (very different from what occurs in the setting of clinical spinal cord injury, where gross, extensive damage and scarring is observed) followed within minutes by chemofusion (GEMINI). The surgery is performed under conditions of deep hypothermia for maximal protection of the neural tissue. Moreover, and equally important, the motoneuronal pools contained in the cord grey matter remain largely untouched and can be engaged by spinal cord stimulation, a technique that has recently shown itself capable of restoring at least some motor control in spinal injured subjects.
The indications for HEAVEN would be far-reaching (including non-brain cancer), but, given the dearth of donors, a select group of gravely ill individuals would be the target. This would include for instance people with some kinds of muscular dystrophies, which prove eventually lethal and a source of major suffering. Even someone like UK physicist and mathematician S.Hawking could have benefited, as could have US actor Reeves, a tetraplegic.
The ethical dilemma behind HEAVEN does not rest with the supposed exploitation of an organ donor for the benefit a single person (the recipient), since the recipient’s own body would act as a donation unit itself. Instead, it is clear that HEAVEN would represent an effective life-extension strategy. Without proper regulation, a select aging few with adequate funds could secure the bodies of healthy young individuals on the black market, and have them transplanted by unscrupulous surgeons. The society needs to begin addressing the problem, while HEAVEN is on its way to be deployed in the clinical arena.
Dr Sergio Canavero
Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, Turin, Italy
cell: +39 349 4717819