[Robert Wheatley | Contributing Writer]
Despite Dr. Hunt Batjer’s statement that “I would not wish this on anyone” and “there are a lot of things worse than death”, Italian physician Dr. Sergio Canavero nonetheless appears confident to go through with the head transplant procedure.
A successful head transplant operation once took place by Dr. Robert White, who managed to transfer the head of one monkey’s body to another, and while the monkey survived for eight days the body eventually rejected the new head. It also could not breathe without assistance, and nor could it move for its spinal cord was not connected. Canavero has cited the operation within his 2013 paper HEAVEN which has been published on the free, online, medical journal Surgical Neurology International.
Batjer is chairman of neurological surgery at UT Southwestern, and has claimed that Canavero’s research is significantly outdated, being over 45 years old. He notes that it is the spinal cord that is the issue, and that while the physician has claimed he will use a special sealant to fuse the head and body back together Batjer is still not convinced.
Arthur Caplan Ph.D., director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center claims this is simply a PR stunt. In regards to post-operation, Caplan said: “Their bodies would end up being overwhelmed with different pathways and chemistry than they are used to and they’d go crazy.”
Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian man suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare genetic disorder, has volunteered for the operation. He has not been the first to do so, with Canavero claiming there have been “stacks” of emails and letters sent to him by people wanting the procedure.
Spiridonov, speaking to the Daily Mail, said he wanted a chance for a new body before he died. While he has said he is afraid, he finds the procedure very interesting, and said: “You have to understand that I don’t have many choices… If I don’t try this my fate will be very sad.”
Caplan compared the operation to face transplants, which are successful but put patients at risk for cancer and kidney problems, essentially poisoning the body with immunosuppressant medications to make the body accept the new face. If we compare them both, we can see just how complex this operation truly is. The first successful full face transplant was in 2010 in Barcelona at Vall d’Hebron hospital, but there has still been controversy surrounding such procedures as rejection must be sated with immunosuppressive drugs which greatly increases the risk of developing kidney disease and cancer.
It’s quite a philosophical debate: even if the operation is successful, how will Spiridonov react to his new body? Patients receiving face transplants may require therapy to cope with their new face, as it is understandable that one may find the idea of seeing someone else in the mirror distressing at first. But a new head means a new body entirely: every limb will be different. Caplan notes that even face transplant patients don’t get the full function of their new organ, so what if sections of the body are rejected? The amount of stress psychologically and physically is going to be extreme.
However, Spiridonov is still volunteering, and I must say I commend him for this, and Canavero too for continuing with the procedure despite warnings from other physicians. If it fails, at least Spiridonov had another chance at life. If it succeeds and he does face immense pain, as long as it passes, perhaps it will be worth it. Whatever way the operation goes, it will nonetheless be a marvel of science experimentation, and both parties are immensely brave for taking part.
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