Head transplant explainer: How to get a better body by sleeping for a day

Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. Photo: Supplied
Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. Photo: Supplied

Every time I try to show my mother how to access the internet, she says, "Oh, you can't put a young head on old shoulders." Is that true?

Well, it's true for the moment. But give it a year. Two controversial surgeons have partnered up to perform the world's first head transplant on a human being. The operation is slated for Christmas 2017.

They have a committed volunteer, a 30-year-old Russian computer scientist named Valery Spiridonov who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease – a progressive weakening of skeletal muscles caused by the loss of anterior horn cells in the spinal column – which he was diagnosed with as a baby, and generally leads to early death.

In effect, Spiridonov – a notably sweet-faced man of reportedly great optimism – is confined to a wheelchair and needs a new body from the neck down. So what's being performed is a body transplant.

Who are these surgeons? They sound like modern Dr Frankensteins.

It goes with the territory. In 1970, Robert J. White, a Harvard-educated professor of neurosurgery, was called Dr Frankenstein by critics after he transplanted the head of a rhesus monkey on to the body of another monkey. He managed to hook up the circulatory system to the monkey's new head – and the monkey could hear, smell, taste, eat and follow what was going on with its eyes. However, it couldn't move about because White didn't try connecting the head to the severed spinal cord. Mercifully, it died after nine days.

During the 1990s, White reportedly talked about transplanting the heads of Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking onto healthy bodies. At the time, White – who received a number of honorary degrees – was Pope John Paul II's adviser on medical ethics.

The most recent surgeon to be celebrated in the media as a Dr Frankenstein is Dr Xiaoping Ren who heads a well-funded research program at Harbin Medical University, China. Ren has transplanted the heads of more than 1000 mice since 2013, often mixing up the colours such that brown heads are sewn on to white bodies. Some forearm twitching has been reported. None of the mice lived more than a day.

Eek! How can anyone take such horror seriously??

In December 2014, Ren published his findings in the peer-reviewed journal CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics. The paper concludes: "This experimental study has confirmed a method to avoid cerebral ischaemia (insufficient blood supply) during the surgery and solved an important part of the problem of how to accomplish long-term survival after transplantation and preservation of the donor brain stem." The journal has since published two more of Ren's transplant papers.

Ren, who has talked about China's ambition to win a Nobel prize for a major breakthrough, claims to have successfully transplanted a monkey's head, although no paper has yet been published.

Ren is one of the surgeons planning to cut off Spiridonov's head and attach it to the healthy body of a donor, possibly the remains of an executed citizen.

The other is Italian neuroscientist Dr Sergio Canavero who published the operation's basic plan – including how to glue the spinal cord and head together – in the June 2013 edition of peer-reviewed journal Surgical Neurology International. Canavero presented the plan in 2015 as the keynote address of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons' 39th annual conference in Annapolis.

So that suggests a lot of respect. However, Arthur Caplan, the director of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Centre, has described Canavero as "nuts".

Canavero hasn't helped his reputation by suggesting that rich old bastards could eventually buy new bodies and live forever.

Yeah? I suppose I could do with a better body. What's involved?

For a start, you'll need a spare 36 hours and $US20 million. At least 150 surgeons, nurses and other specialists need to be paid. The brain-dead donor's body will be matched to yours for height, weight and immunotype (meaning: you could share a kidney). Your head is screwed to a frame, cooled to between 12 degrees and 15 degrees to protect your brain cells from dying. The head is taken off at the same time. You are essentially asphyxiated with fine plastic tubes to stop the blood flow in your carotid arteries and jugular veins – then, finally, your head is cut off using a $200,000 diamond nanoblade. The donor's head comes off at the same time, same kind of blade.

Canavero says the "clean cut" made when severing the spinal cord is the key to your head and your new spine being successfully fused – such that in four weeks, after lying in a coma to eliminate wiggling about, you can undergo rehabilitation and start walking around. This is Spiridonov's great hope – that he'll be out of the wheelchair, fathering children and taking up jogging.

But hang on, if a spinal cord can be put together again, then paraplegia and so forth can be cured. Why isn't that happening already?

There has been some success in experiments with rats, but it's never been done with humans. And this is just one reason why the medical establishment is squeamish about the whole venture. If Spiridonov survives the surgery (and you have to remember those mice that survived only a day) he may be worse off than he is now.

Another problem is that your brian interacts with the rest of your body in a complex way that is peculiar to you. Canavero is all but promising that Spiridonov will still be the same person – and this may not be true. It's been suggested he could suffer a form of insanity that has never occurred before. All of this has been explained to him – and still he wants to take the chance, and be a part of history.

If the operations goes ahead as planned, it will be 50 years almost to the day since Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant on Louis Washkansky, who died 18 days later.

This story Head transplant explainer: How to get a better body by sleeping for a day first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.