Written by: Honor Whiteman
Last updated: Thu 22 October 2015
In February, Medical News Today reported that an Italian surgeon is to announce updated plans to conduct the world’s first human head transplant within the next 2 years. Now, a 30-year-old Russian man is set to become the first person to undergo the procedure.
‘The HEAVEN-GEMINI procedure – which is estimated to take 100 surgeons around 36 hours to complete – will involve spinal cord fusion’
Dr. Sergio Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group (TANG) in Italy, first spoke of his plans to carry out the first human head transplantation in July 2013 – a project named HEAVEN-GEMINI.
At the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons’ 39th Annual Conference in Annapolis, MD, in June, Dr. Canavero will present updated plans for the project, addressing some of the previously identified challenges that come with it.
Though researchers have seriously questioned the feasibility of Dr. Canavero’s plans, it seems the first human head transplantation is a step closer to becoming a reality; Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, is the first person to volunteer for the procedure.
Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease – a rare genetic muscle wasting condition, also referred to as type 1 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The condition is caused by the loss of motor neurons in the spinal cord and the brain region connected to the spinal cord. Individuals with the disease are unable to walk and are often unable to sit unaided.
Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease at the age of 1 and told MailOnline that he volunteered for HEAVEN-GEMINI because he wants the chance of a new body before he dies.
‘”I can hardly control my body now,” he said. “I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease.”
Donor body will be attached to recipient’s head through spinal cord fusion!
Dr. Canavero told CNN he has received an array of emails and letters from people asking to be considered for the procedure, many of which have been from transgender individuals seeking a new body. However, the surgeon says the first people to undergo the procedure will be those with muscle wasting conditions like Spiridonov.
The procedure – which is estimated to take 100 surgeons around 36 hours to complete – will involve spinal cord fusion (SCF). The head from a donor body will be removed using an “ultra-sharp blade” in order to limit the amount of damage the spinal cord sustains.
“The key to SCF is a sharp severance of the cords themselves,” Dr. Canavero explains in a paper published earlier this year, “with its attendant minimal damage to both the axons in the white matter and the neurons in the gray laminae. This is a key point.” The spinal cord of the donor body will then be fused with the spinal cord of the recipient’s head. Chemicals called polyethylene glycol or chitosan can be used to encourage SCF, according to Dr. Canavero. The muscles and blood supply will then be sutured.
The recipient will be kept in a coma for around 3-4 weeks, says Dr. Canavero, during which time the spinal cord will be subject to electrical stimulation via implanted electrodes in order to boost the new nerve connections.
The surgeon estimates that – with the help of physical therapy – the patient would be able to walk within 1 year.
Spiridonov admits he is worried about undergoing the procedure. “Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am,” he told MailOnline. “But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting.”
“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 talks more about his decision to participate in HEAVEN-GEMINI in the video below:
Dr. Canavero branded ‘nuts’
Dr. Canavero has previously admitted there are two major challenges with HEAVEN-GEMINI: reconnecting the severed spinal cord, and stopping the immune system from rejecting the head. But he claims that recent animal studies have shown the procedure is “feasible.”
Unsurprisingly, however, researchers worldwide are highly skeptical of the proposal. Talking to CNN, Arthur Caplan, PhD, director of medical ethics and NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY, even called Dr. Canavero “nuts.”
Caplan said the procedure needs to be conducted many more times on animals before it is applied to humans, adding that if the technique is feasible then Dr. Canavero should be trying to help paralyzed patients before attempting whole body transplants.
And talking to New Scientist earlier this year, Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of California-Davis, said the project is so “overwhelming” that it is the chances of it going ahead are unlikely.
“I don’t believe it will ever work,” he added, “there are too many problems with the procedure. Trying to keep someone healthy in a coma for 4 weeks – it’s not going to happen.”
Spiridonov says he is well aware of the risks, though he is still willing to take a chance on Dr. Canavero.
“He’s a very experienced neurosurgeon and has conducted many serious operations. Of course he has never done anything like this and we have to think carefully through all the possible risks,” he told MailOnline, but adds that “if you want something to be done, you need to participate in it.”
Though it not been confirmed when the procedure will be performed, Spiridonov says it could be as early as next year. Watch this space.