Medicine has always been the field of the future. In medicine, the dreams of yesterday, the fantasies that were once only imagined in science fiction novels and movies, can become standard, everyday practices.
March 14, 1970: American neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White emerged from the operating room filled with a combination of excitement and fatigue. He knew what he had accomplished, the doors he had just opened for future generations. Through several long, intensive hours of surgery, Dr. White and his team were able to successfully detach the head of a rhesus macaque, a monkey frequently used for medical testing, and transfer it to a new body without any complications. He purposefully left the spinal cord unfused due to the lacking technology of the time, but he joined all the complementary arteries and veins. The patient (the monkey) survived for eight days, its head fully intact and functional, until it eventually succumbed to the donor body’s immune system.
The work Dr. White produced was beyond his time. For more than forty years, no other doctors attempted to build upon his work until July 2013, when Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero announced a new project. Labeled HEAVEN-GEMINI, the idea Dr. Canavero proposed was based on the notion that it was possible to move a decapitated head onto a new body without losing any functionality.
Although he has already received much criticism from some of the world’s most prestigious professors and physicians, Dr. Canavero remains steadfast and claims that his experiment is no more a Frankenstein science than designer babies or genetic engineering. If man is given the opportunity to play God, he will for the sake of humanity and the advancement of modern technology.
While Dr. White was successful in reconnecting arteries and veins to their respective counterparts, he failed in two regards: integration of the spinal cord and accommodation of the host immune system. Without those crucial components, a slow, excruciating death is inevitable. Thus, there seems to be little concrete science to back Dr. Canavero’s ideas.
His experiment is founded on two proofs of concept, however. The first comes from the work of Dr. Xiaoping Ren, an orthopedic surgeon in China. Similarly to Dr. White, Dr. Ren has successfully performed on surgery about a thousand mice, with some even displaying different colors of head and body. His goal is to prolong their survival time and involves deactivating the immune system of the patient to prevent harm to the transplanted head following surgery. The longest survival time achieved was one day. Ren expects to dissect and mesh primates in the near future.
The second proof of concept lies in a newly developed technology that has shown promise in fusing back together a severed nervous system. The solution, unveiled by C-Yoon Kim of South Korea, lies with the secret ingredient polyethylene glycol, which preserves cell membranes and prompts the growth of spinal cell nerves in animals. By incorporating this artificial polymer into the surgical procedure, researchers have managed to perform head transplants on mice that are later able to smell and move their feet.
Little by little, the plan to actually execute a full body transplant is becoming real. The first patient has already been chosen. He is Valery Spiridonov, a thirty-one year old Russian program manager who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, a muscle-wasting disorder.
The patient’s brain will be chilled to around twelve to fifteen degrees Celsius to prevent any brain damage. A $200,000 diamond nano blade provided by the University of Texas will then slice through the spinal cords of both the patient and the donor. From there, operating surgeons will have less than an hour to reconnect the carotid artery and jugular vein in the necks of the head and body. Once they do so, the warm blood in the donor’s body will, in theory, return the brain to its normal temperature. Polyethylene glycol will be used to fuse adjacent cells from the donor and the recipient and the nerves will all be connected once again. The final stage of surgery will be spent making sure the patient’s head is secure and that all blood vessels and muscles are rejoined.
After surgery, the patient will need to be kept in a drug-induced coma for four weeks to prevent movement and allow the brain to recover. During that time, doctors will administer immunosuppressants and monitor the patient’s blood for anti-donor antibodies. They will also electrically stimulate the spinal cord to facilitate growth and improve the patient’s sensory and motor functions. Soon afterwards, the patient will undergo rehabilitation and, hopefully, be cured.
On paper, the entire project may sound appealing, but there are still certain caveats that cannot be ignored: the operation currently costs twenty million dollars, involves at least a hundred and fifty medical caregivers, and is expected to last for thirty-six hours. If the operation is a success, Dr. Canavero hopes to save patients with metastatic cancer and degenerative muscle disorders, such as muscular dystrophy.
The significance of Canavero’s revolutionary work transcends mere body transplantation, and– this is absolutely undeniable– it would lay the groundwork for untold developments. This is not a case of just ethics and morals; rather, it is a case that will dictate our past, present, and future.