First human head transplant precipitates ethical controversy


The world’s first human head transplant has been performed on a corpse in China by Dr. Sergio Canavero. The controversial Italian doctor announced that his team is ready to perform the surgery on a living person.

Canavero, chief of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, said that Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University partnered with him to perform the transplant. Ren is a Chinese scientist who had previously grafted a head onto a monkey’s body.

Canavero refused to reveal the identities of the Chinese donor and recipient.

The operation used a diamond blade to sever the spinal cords of the donor and the recipient. If the transplant were performed on a living body, Canavero said that the recipient’s brain would be cooled to a state of deep hypothermia in order to safeguard it during transfer. The ends of the neurons would be bathed in a solution that stabilizes the membranes and puts them back together. There is expected to be more than 24 hours of labor to separate and then remodel vertebral bones, jugular veins, the trachea, esophagus and other neck structures. During the remodeling, a machine will pump blood throughout the patient’s body and help them breathe. The patient would remain in a drug-induced coma for an undetermined span of time.

While doctors have previously been taught that this type of operation could never work on the central nervous system, these teachings were incorrect in regard to animals. Head transplants have been conducted on mice and dogs. In one operation, the dog started walking again after just six weeks and the only side effect was an uncoordinated walk.

Canavero himself said that he carried out the surgeries on rats.

Though head transplants have been performed before on different animals with success, many scientists are wary of them. Doctors are worried about the dangers and ethical concerns that can arise from performing these transplants. Medical communities in Europe and the United States have shunned Canavero because of his experiments.

“The Americans did not understand,” said Canavero.

According to USA Today, Canavero traveled to China because “Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to restore China to greatness. He wants to make it the sole superpower of the world.”

Most medical experts think that the idea of a live human head transplant is a radical one. The operation’s biggest obstacle, however, may not be the actual science behind it but whether it should happen at all.

Dr. Assya Pascalev, a biomedical ethicist at Howard University, stated that “We don’t have enough data with animal models, sufficient published and peer-reviewed results, and particularly data about morbidity and mortality on the animals that have had the procedure.”

Pascalev did admit, however, that innovative operations were met with skepticism in the past, including the first heart, hand and face transplants.

There are major questions about identity and ethics that come with the introduction of this operation.

There is a debate about whether the recipient should have legal rights to children created by the new body. The connections between the central and peripheral nervous systems are essential to a sense of personhood. This raises the question of whether introducing a new central nervous system to a foreign peripheral nervous system puts one person inside another body or if it creates a new person entirely. This debate introduces legal and philosophical concerns, such as whether a child born from someone with a transplanted head is the child of the donor or the recipient. Biological innovations such as transplants trigger a debate over the precarious topic of personhood and bring attention to identity concerns.

James Giordano, professor of medicine and neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center supports Pascalev. He believes that there were not enough inspections done to detect possible risks.

Giordano, however, also praises Canavero for his unprecedented work.

“Look, I'm not an ethicist, I'm a neurologist and this may be an avant-garde technique, I recognize there is a high possibility for failure, but this is the only way we can push the envelope and probe the cutting edge to determine what works, what doesn't and why,” said Giordano.

The first human head transplant on a living individual is expected to be performed sometime this month in China.