Last year, the world was both fascinated and freaked out after an Italian surgeon, Dr Sergio Canavero, claimed he would be carrying out the world’s first human head transplant. Now, a Chinese surgeon has stepped up to say that he also plans to conduct this extremely problematic operation.
Dr Ren Xiaoping explained in an interview with the New York Times that he is building a team and fine-tuning a plan to perform the operation, which he said will take place “when we are ready.”
The plan involves severing two heads from their bodies and then connecting the blood vessels of the body of the deceased donor and the recipient's head. The team will also insert a metal plate to stabilize the neck and then soak the spinal cord nerve endings in a substance to encourage them to connect.
Dr Ren, sarcastically dubbed “Dr Frankenstein” by the media, gained notoriety earlier this year after claiming to conduct a head transplant on a monkey. Even in this experiment, the monkey only managed to survive for 20 hours before it was euthanized for ethical reasons.
Still, the report from the New York Times claimed that several people in China have already volunteered for the transplant, including Wang Huanming, a 62-year-old who was paralyzed from the neck down six years ago.
The plan has many hurdles to overcome and has already received a massive amount of criticism. Firstly, many leading doctors question whether it is even scientifically possible to reconnect neurons in the spine, despite recent advancements made in this area of biomedicine.
Other concerns come from an ethical standpoint. In an article for Forbes about Dr Sergio Canavero, Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, said: “Would a brain integrate new signals, perceptions, information from a body different from the one it was familiar with? I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.
“Brain transplantation is not ready for prime time. To attempt to move a brain to a new body given what is known about the medicine and science involved, one would have to be out of one’s mind.”
Similar concerns plague Dr Ren’s aspirations. However, many are worried that China’s blind ambition for scientific prowess and poor track record for medical ethics could mean that Dr Ren will not be deterred by criticism.
Speaking to the New York Times, Caplan added: “The Chinese system is not transparent in any way. I do not trust Chinese bioethical deliberation or policy. Add healthy doses of politics, national pride and entrepreneurship, and it is tough to know what is going on.”