A top Italian surgeon has said he plans to perform the first human head transplant as soon as 2017.
Dr Sergio Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, on Friday outlined his proposal to the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons conference in Maryland.
Dr Canavero first proposed the idea in 2013, explaining that such a surgery could benefit those whose bodies had multiple cancers.
The procedure will transfer the patient’s head to the brain-dead body of an organ donor. From there, Dr Canavero hopes to use a chemical called polyethylene glycol to grow the spinal cord between the head and the new body.
Dr Canavero already has his first volunteer. Russian computer programmer Valery Spiridonov (30), who suffers from a rare muscle-wasting genetic disease, met with Canavero earlier this year. Earlier this year, Mr Spiridonov said “this could transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Where there is an opportunity there is hope”.
The idea of head transplants is nothing new; experiments in the 1950s transplanted the heads of dogs in early attempts to understand organ transplants. In 1970 the American neurosurgeon Robert J White gained notoriety for performing head transplant experiments on monkeys. However, both these efforts ultimately failed as body paralysis and immune rejection led to both dogs and monkeys not surviving for more than a few days.
Dr Canavero claims that modern medicine has solved these problems. New research last year in China was able to carry out head transplants in mice and claimed to have solved a key problem concerning the new blood supply to the brain.
Experts however remain highly sceptical that this type of procedure can be done. Dr Hunt Batjer, president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons has said that “I would not allow anyone to do it to me”.
In the mean time, Dr Canavero still faces very clear ethical concerns involved with head transplants. Despite these concerns, he remains confident about his research going forward. “It is equally clear,” he wrote during his 2013 proposal “that horrible conditions without a hint of hope of improvement cannot be relegated to the dark corner of medicine.”