Italian surgeon to attempt world's first head transplant

14 April 2015

What was once sci-fi is increasingly becoming a reality – doctors at an Italian institute are preparing to perform a head transplant on a 30-year-old man suffering from a terminal muscle-wasting disease.

Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridinov hopes to be the first recipient of a completely new body. He says he wants Italian neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero to perform the risky, controversial operation because his condition is extreme.

The surgery would see Spiridinov's head removed from his body and attached to a healthy body from a brain-dead donor.

Spiridinov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare genetic condition which stops his muscles from growing, which means they cannot support his adult skeleton.

He told the Mail Online, ''Am I afraid? Yes of course I am. But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting.

''But you have to understand that I don't really have many choices. If I don't try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.''

Dr Sergio Canavero,  director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Turin, Italy, hopes to perform the operation within the next two years. Some experts say his claims, published in Surgical Neurology International, are too bold.

Dr Canavero proposes that after severing the head from the body through a clean cut to the spinal column, it would be attached to a living donor body.

Once the major nerves and arteries have been rejoined, the spinal column would be injected with polyethylene glyco, a substance that encourages the fat in cell membranes to join. The patient would then be placed into an induced coma for several weeks while electrodes would be used to stimulate new nerve connections between the head and the body.

The recipient would be able to speak with the same voice, claims Dr Canavero, adding that with physiotherapy they would be able to walk within a year.

Dr Canavero and Spiridinov have not yet met and have only communicated via Skype so far, but they have reportedly been discussing the operation for two years.

Spiridinov says the date has not yet been agreed, but pending ongoing studies, it could be as soon as 2016.

''This technology is similar to the first man to walk in space. This is because in the future it will help thousands of people who are in an even more deplorable state than I am.''

Dr Canavero has not yet secured funding for the 150-strong medical team he would require for the €7.5-million operation.

Too ambitious?
Despite Spiridinov's optimism much of the medical profession believe the controversial procedure is doomed.

Dr Hunt Batjer, president-elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, told CNN, ''I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it for me as there are a lot of things worse than death.''

Head transplants have been carried out on dogs, monkeys and mice, all with varying degrees of success.

Chinese scientists have carried out a head transplant on a mouse. Owing to which, there are some models for the procedure. But a majority of experts affirmed that a human head transplant is a complete unexplored thing.

Gory procedure
Describing the process, Dr Canavero said the first thing he would have to do was to cool both the body and head, so that the cells would not die when they are deprived of oxygen during the process.

In the next phase, the neck of patient will be cut and all the important blood vessels will be hooked up to tubes. Meanwhile, the spinal cord on the head and the body will be severed. The next step would be move the recipient's head onto the donor's body and the two ends of the spinal cord are joined together.

The last stage of this lengthy surgery would be stitch up the muscles and blood supply.

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