Organ transplants have largely remained above criticism. Morality rarely enters the discussion. One donor (who presumably no can longer use his or her organs or tissues) allows someone in need new opportunities. But what about whole body transplants. As doctors work to perfect the transplantation of human heads, new ethical questions arise.
Those questions, though, are taking a back seat to the news that a human head transplant is about to be tested in China. An Italian doctor and his team performed a dry run on a corpse this week and have said they are ready to test the procedure on a living person.
“Dr. Sergio Canavero, chief of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, said the operation was carried out by a team led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren, who last year successfully grafted a head onto a monkey’s body,” The New York Post reports.
“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done. A full head swap between brain-dead organ donors is the next stage,” Canavero said at a press conference in Vienna.
“And that is the final step for the formal head transplant for a medical condition which is imminent,” said Canavero.
The procedure has obvious implications on medical science. The ability to take someone who is terminally ill, or completely paralyzed and offer them new life continues to drive the research.
Yet many are leery of Canavero. They compare him to Dr. Frankenstein. This sort of procedure looms large in the world of science-fiction, and those arguments almost always center around man’s inability to accept the inevitability of death.
Yet the team from Harbin Medical University are demonstrating that blood vessels, nerves, even spinal columns can be reconnected.
Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov has volunteered to become the first head transplant patient. Spiridonov has a muscle-wasting condition. Yet finding a donor body in China might be difficult. Instead, the team may rely on local donors.
Canavero has performed the procedure on rats and monkeys. Despite these successes, his work is still not widely accepted. He’s had to turn to China to find willing sponsors for his research. Part of this is due, in no small part, to the short life-spans of his transplant recipients.
“The Americans did not understand,” Canavero said.
Dr. James Giordano, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, is one of those voicing skepticism. He spoke with USA Today last week.
“He’s run the ethical flag up the poles and said, ‘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,’” Giordano said.
Still, Giordano and others suggest the procedure seems extreme. Others question more traditional concepts of identity. Would you be you if you woke up with a completely different body?