Chinese surgeon plans first head transplant after corpse success

Ren Xiaoping working on timeframe for first procedure on a living human

Organ transplants have generally been a problem in China, as the country was criticised for using the organs of executed prisoners. Photograph: iStock

A Chinese surgeon has transplanted a human head onto a cadaver for the first time, and announced that he was establishing a timeframe for the debut operation on a living human being in the next few months.

"During the 18-hour operation, experts successfully reconnected the spine, nerves, and blood vessels of a severed head," Ren Xiaoping of the Harbin Medical University told local media.

“There has never been such a procedure in surgery. We completed the design of the operation, including how to cut and how to deal with the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles. Those are our achievements,” said Mr Ren, who performed a similar procedure on a monkey last year.

He has also carried out similar operations on mice, which only lived for a couple of days. He assisted in the first hand transplant in the US in 1999.


Transplanting a human head onto a new body raises thorny ethical issues, as witnessed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which delivers a strong moral message after the novel's main character, a doctor, creates a "creature".

“Many believed that reattaching a spinal cord was an insurmountable barrier in the medical world . . . there is no precedent for this in history,” said Mr Ren, describing the process as groundbreaking and original.

Mr Ren said a full report about the procedure would be available in coming days, and that he would also outline a timeframe for the first live transplant.

Problem transplants

Organ transplants have generally been a problem in China, as the country was criticised for using the organs of executed prisoners, a practice that the government says no longer takes place.

Italian professor Sergio Canavero, who is director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, has said that he plans to perform the first human head transplant and he has worked closely with Mr Ren's organisation.

He has previously announced a volunteer for the transplant, Valery Spiridonov, a 31-year-old Russian male who has a degenerative muscle condition. If the procedure fails it means the patient's death.

According to Mr Ren, results of the transplant will be published this week in the American medical journal Surgical Neurology International.

Hu Yongsheng, a professor at Xuanwu Hospital Capital Medical University in Beijing, told Global Times that the procedure could not technically be called surgery. Mr Mr Hu said the procedure should be fully tested on animals before trying it out on humans.

“Head transplants might eventually become a reality, but not right now,” said Mr Hu.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing