Head Transplant Claims Worry Experts

While claims from an Italian neurosurgeon that he is going to perform the world’s first head transplant have made headlines worldwide, experts are worried. Sergio Canavero claims that he will perform the transplant in 2017 on a man with spinal muscular atrophy type 1 (also known as Werdnig-Hoffmann disease), a terminal condition.

Technically, the procedure is possible. Head transplants were first discussed in the 1950s. In 1954, Soviet scientists tested a variety of procedures based on it, including the transplant of a dog’s head. The procedure was not successful. Later, in the 1970s, a head transplant was attemted on a monkey. Since there was no way to reattach the head to the spinal cord, the monkey was paralyzed, and died eight days later from rejection. In 2001, the neurosurgeon Robert J. White attempted to perform a head transplant on a monkey. The monkey only survived for a short time after the procedure.

Neil Levy, an associate professor at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, succinctly defined Canavero’s motives.

“I think this Italian surgeon is after publicity, he’s gonna get it.” He added that Canavero was most likely to exploit the situation and not cure the supposed recipient. Other scientists have agreed. They note that Canavero has not published any research about his proposed head transplant procedure in peer-reviewed medical journals. The procedure would still leave the patient paralyzed and has not been made sucessful in animals. A Chinese surgeon, Xiaoping Ren, has achieved what is considered to be great success in the field with his head transplants on mice, but even then the mice have only lived as long as a day. The amount of immunosuppression required would also almost certainly kill the patient in five-to-10 years.

What is even more concerning is that Canavero is asking for a great deal of money to make the transplant happen: almost $100 million.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a doctor has made claims in the press that are exaggerated or outright false. In 1978, author David Rorvik claimed to have been a part of the first human cloning, which he documented in the book In his Image: The Cloning of a Man. Once it was published to great public acclaim, scientists immediately said that the procedures described in the book were not yet possible. He never provided any evidence for his claim and while he never admitted the book was a hoax, it is still considered to be one.

In 2002, a religious group, the Raëlians, said that they had produced the first human clone, called “Eve.” Once again the claim was widely spread by the news as fact, although scientists again said the procedure was still not possible. Neither the mother or child were ever produced or subjected to DNA tests. It is now considered a hoax.

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