Liver transplants and heart transplants, while still complicated and potentially dangerous, are fairly commonplace these days. But a head transplant? That sounds like something out of science fiction.
But as CNN reports, one doctor in Italy says he has it all figured out and is moving ahead with plans to perform the world’s first human head transplant by 2017.
Dr. Sergio Canavero is working now to secure the money needed to perform the procedure. He hopes that through crowd-funding and proceeds from book sales he will soon be able to pay for the team and facility needed to perform the amazingly complicated procedure.
It is expected to cost roughly $11 million.
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Canavero will also to have secure a partner for the operation. According to CNN, he hopes to impress the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS) when he presents at the annual conference this summer. If he does impress the academy, he could be approved to do the surgery in 2017. However, if he does not, he will reportedly pursue other partners in China.
If Canavero is able to secure both the funding and a partner, he will then put together a team of 150 nurses and doctors.
One thing Canavero doesn't have to worry about is finding the first patient. He has already found him: Valery Spiridonov. A 30-year-old Russian computer programmer, Spiridonov suffers from a rare muscle-wasting disorder known as Werdnig-Hoffman disease.
Spiridonov spoke with the Daily Mail recently and said he is well aware of the risks, but he is undergoing the procedure in an effort to advance science. At 30 he has already lived about 10 years longer than most people diagnosed with his genetic disorder.
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“Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am,” he told the Daily Mail. “But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting.
“But you have to understand that I don't really have many choices,” he added. “If I don't try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.”
Spiridonov said he has never met Canavero, but they have been trading emails and talking on Skype for years. Despite the CNN report, Spiridonov thinks the procedure could happen as early as 2016.
Regardless of when it is performed, the surgery is expected to last about 36 hours. Spiridonov’s head will be removed from his body and placed onto the healthy, brain dead body of a donor patient.
According to CNN, Canavero cites, in his academic writing on the subject, experiments in which the heads of monkeys and rats have been successfully transplanted.
Critics claim, though, the monkey head transplant wasn’t as successful as Canavero seems to imply. It’s a big leap from that 45-year-old monkey experiment to what Canavero is proposing, said Dr. Hunt Batjer, who is chairman of neurological surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern.
"I would not wish this on anyone, I would not allow anyone to do it to me, there are a lot of things worse than death," Batjer told CNN.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of medical ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. He told CNN Canavero is “nuts” and he has failed to think through everything that could go wrong.
“It's not like you can unscrew your head and put it on someone else,” Caplan said
But Spiridonov is undaunted.
Whether successful or not, he believes there is much to be learned from the surgery. He said he doesn’t figure he has much longer to live and the surgery at least gives him a chance at a new body. Should he not survive the procedure, Canavero, and others, will still learn from the surgery, he said.
“If you want something to be done, you need to participate in it,” Spiridonov told the Daily Mail.