HUMAN head transplants have, until recently, been nothing more than science fiction, but Dr Sergio Canavero, Director of the Turin Advanced Neuro-modulation Group, Turin, Italy, has announced plans to conduct the world’s first human head transplant in a project named HEAVEN-GEMINI. Mr Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, became the first person to volunteer for the procedure.
Mr Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare genetic muscle wasting disease, also known as Type 1 spinal muscular atrophy, at the age of 1. “I can hardly control my body now,” said Mr Spiridonov. “I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease.”
HEAVEN-GEMINI is a controversial procedure and researchers have severely criticised its feasibility. The procedure, predicted to require 100 surgeons approximately 36 hours to complete, will include spinal cord fusion (SCF), and the head from a donor body will be removed with an ultra-sharp blade, to minimise damage sustained by the spinal cord. “The key to SCF is a sharp severance of the cords themselves,” explained Dr Canavero, “with its attendant minimal damage to both the axons in the white matter and the neurons in the grey laminae. This is a key point.”
The spinal cord of the donor body will then be merged with the recipient’s head with chemicals called polyethylene glycol or chitosan available to stimulate SCF. The recipient will remain in a coma for 3-4 weeks, in which time the spinal cord will be subjected to electrical stimulation via implanted electrodes to bolster new nerve connections.
Dr Canavero has suggested that the recipient may walk again within 1 year, supported by physical therapy. However, there are major challenges with the procedure, such as reconnecting the spinal cord and preventing the immune system from rejecting the head.
Mr Spiridonov however, remains hopeful in spite of the risks, and suggested that the operation could take place as early as next year. “He is 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,” said Mr Spiridonov, “but if you want something to be done, you need to participate in it.”