Russian Man Volunteers to Be the First Full Head Transplant


According to CBS News, a Russian Man named Valery Spiridonov has volunteered to be the first full head transplant. Is this crack pot science, or is the dawn of a new age in transplantation? That appears to be the question on the minds of many people in the medical community. What is it, though, that has so many people riled up about something that could be positively revolutionary?

Background on Spiridonov's Case

In July 2013, Italian neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero announced in The Atlantic that head transplantation was now possible after completing successful procedures on mice. He said, “we have at last figured out that issue of connecting the spinal cord. The head transplant is now feasible...” Fast forward to August 2016 and Dr. Canavero not only has Chinese surgeon Dr. Xiaoping Ren to perform the transplant, he also has his first human volunteer for this controversial procedure, Valery Spiridonov.

Valery Spiridonov suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease. The disorder, which is genetic and often fatal, kills nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, and breaks down the muscles, making movement nearly impossible. Because of this, Spiridonov's movement is quite limited. He is restrained to his wheelchair and he can barely feed himself. With a disease as rare as his, it is understandable that he would be intrigued at just the idea of a new life, however it may be delivered to him.

Controversy Over the Procedure

Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger once said, "A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts or figures, and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic, and he fails to see your point."

It would seem that Festinger's words, spoken decades ago, are spot on in terms of the responses from the medical community to Dr. Canavero's work. Since the announcement of this potential procedure, The Atlantic said that critics have called Dr. Canavero corrupt, delusional, and a liar. They have even referred to his transplant plan as a “Human Centipede–level medical horror show” that is “like James Bond villain insane.” Others have called it junk science, and unethical because it is filled with uncertainty that is giving people false hope.

However, one can't help but wonder, what if doctors Canavero and Ren do succeed? What will it mean for science if Valery Spiridonov's head is in fact successfully transplanted from his body to a new body? Will his disease cause the new body to suffer the same devastating symptoms? Will the procedure slowly kill him? Or, if the procedure is successful, could Spiridonov have a renewed and better life?

What Happens in a Normal Transplant Procedure

In the most simple terms, an organ transplant replaces an organ that is failing. To date, successful transplants have been performed with livers, kidneys, hearts, lungs, and even the small intestine.

Every transplant surgery poses some major risks, and complications can be common. However, it would seem that with time, transplants have become less dangerous to perform. Of course, each case is different as no one can ever be certain that a person's body won't reject the new organ once it's placed in their body.

Before the procedure, the patient seeking an organ has to wait for a viable organ. Once the transplant procedure has taken place, a new type of waiting game follows. There will be regular blood work, anti-rejection drugs (of which some patients will be on for the rest of their lives), additional lab testing, and so on. In the worst cases, the new organ takes the life of the transplant patient by way of infection, or some other cause. In the intermediate cases, the organ is rejected by the body and another new organ is needed. However, in the best cases, the patient's body accepts the new organ, and they are able to live a long, happy, and healthy life.

Transplanting an entire head from one body to another? Now, that's an entirely different situation altogether. Perhaps the fact that it's so extreme is the real, underlying cause of the controversy.

What's Next?

At the time of this writing, this head transplant procedure has not yet been approved to take place.* Though Dr. Canavero has a surgeon and a volunteer patient on board, even he recognizes that wanting to do something, and being able to do it, are not the same thing. Millions of dollars, dozens of surgeons, and approval from a family to give a body to this experimental procedure will all be needed. Still, Dr. Canavero is hopeful that the procedure can take place in 2017.

Back to the question posed in the beginning of this article, is this crackpot science? Only time will truly tell. It would seem that any time a change in the medical field occurs, people balk. After all, even Ignaz Semmelweis was mocked for claiming that doctors should wash their hands and utensils before delivering babies to save the lives of the mothers giving birth, and we all know where that got us.

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