A surgeon in China who has become controversial for his medical experimentation plans to perform the world's first full-body transplant. The news has alarmed many in the medical community both inside and outside of China, who believe that the proposed transplant will stretch the ethical limits of the profession.
The surgeon in question is Dr. Ren Xiaoping of Harbin Medical University, who was involved in the first full hand transplant undertaken in the United States in 1999. His patient is Wang Huanming, a 62-year-old retired gas worker who became paralyzed from his neck down after wrestling with a friend, The New York Times reports.
According to The Times, Dr. Xiaoping proposes to do the following:
Remove two heads from two bodies, connect the blood vessels of the body of the deceased donor and the recipient head, insert a metal plate to stabilize the new neck, bathe the spinal cord nerve endings in a gluelike substance to aid regrowth and finally sew up the skin.
The idea and conceptual execution of this full-body transplant has medical experts worried about how far China is willing to push the limits of scientific research, both practically and ethically. Leading doctors and experts point to the difficulty of connecting nerves in the patient's spinal cord; failure to do so correctly will mean the patient dies.
"For most people, it’s at best premature and at worst reckless," said James L. Barnet, who teaches neurology and medicine at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine.
Cong Yali, a medical ethicist in China, agreed that experimentation in the country is moving too fast with ideas like Dr. Xiaoping's:
"I don’t want to see China’s scholars, transplant doctors and scientists deepening the impression that people have of us internationally, that when Chinese people do things they have no bottom line — that anything goes."
Other Chinese scientists and ethicists have said that concern from medical experts -- particularly those from overseas -- were overblown and attributed these reactions to envy at China's economic and scientific progress over the past several decades.
Dr. Xiaoping has reportedly done head transplants with mice in the past, although none of the rodents have survived past a day after surgery, according to The Shanghaiist.
Dr. Xiaoping has offered no timetable for the surgery.