Is the human head transplant project, coming to an end?
The human head transplant, or full body transplant depending on who you ask, took an unexpected turn this week, when it’s leading proponent Dr. Sergio Canavero released video of a press conference on his Facebook page, where he touts the latest advances in the head transplant project, and makes a few announcements that raise eyebrows and seem to indicate all might not be going as planned.
The human head transplant project, known formally as the “Human Head Anastomosis Venture” (HEAVEN) was devised by Sergio Canavero in 2013, and basically involves a head-exchange between two bodies. The patient’s body is cooled down, and the head taken off. The head is then placed onto a donor body and the nerves, muscles and blood vessels reconnected. The patient is then artificially put into a coma, in order to allow the body and head to heal. When the patient awakens at the end, he’s got the same head, but a different body.
Of course it’s not as simple as we put it above, but in a nutshell, that’s what was originally proposed. HEAVEN builds on the work of scientists in the former soviet union, as well as american scientist Robert White, who did some bizarre experiments involving head transplants in animals in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Robert White in particular managed to transplant the head of a monkey, and the monkey lived and was able to see, bite and react for a couple of days.
Canavero added three new things to that experimental work, which he claims make the human head transplant entirely possible now: a nanosharp blade, which cuts the spinal cord without causing permanent damage, a special dolly and chair which allows the head to be severed, aligned and placed onto the donor body with high precision, and the use of polypropylene glycol (PEG), a chemical “glue” which seemingly can repair damage to the spinal cord, making it possible for the surviving patient to have no paralysis after the procedure.
The spinal cord fusion procedure has its own name given to it by Canavero, it’s called GEMINI.
Sergio Canavero’s press conference video
We’re fans of Dr. Canavero’s work, and find his proposals quite interesting. But sadly, even with that bias, we have to say that after watching the video, we’re still not convinced that there’s anything really spectacular to say about this whole human head transplant thing.
If you’re planning on watching the video, go ahead, it’s perfectly safe for work. It was filmed (according to Canavero) a few days back, and contains no gory scenes or anything like that. You’ll need to watch it and rewatch it several times, though, in order to get the full understanding of what he’s saying.
According to Canavero’s video, a few days back a medical team in China led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren at Harbin Medical University performed the first successful human head transplant exercises, on dead bodies. The medical team took two cadavers, and performed both the HEAVEN and GEMINI procedures on them successfully. Which would mean that, at least physically, it’s possible to transplant a human head. The team in China managed to do the operation in 18 hours, half the time that Canavero had originally said would be required for this kind of surgery.
The papers and reports on the head transplant exercise are currently being worked on by the chinese doctors, and will be published in the next few days for all to see. In the next few days, there will also be a press conference where the medical team led by Xiaoping Ren will explain what took place, and how it all went.
The human head transplant: promising but…
It’s later in the video where things start to get suspicious, and we start to see something going on behind the scenes. Throughout the video, Canavero explains time and again that most of the information on the human head transplant exercise will be given by the chinese medical team later on. He won’t be going into any details about the procedure or the experiment.
What he does say is that with the current exercise complete, the next phase is to transplant a human head between two brain-dead bodies. Which sounds reasonable. And after that, the chinese team will eventually move on to a head transplant on a living patient.
The chinese medical team will announce the schedule for these phases in the near future.
Notice something strange? Sergio Canavero, the genius and father of the modern day head transplant, wasn’t in China to witness and direct the head transplant exercise. He’s over in Austria, having a press conference in some small cafe in Vienna, with a couple of local news stations, and with no presence of the chinese doctors responsible for the transplant. And he make statements along the line of “don’t ask me, the chinese will tell you later” over and over again.
That’s kind of unusual. You’d expect Canavero to be the first one in the operating theater if something that big was going on in the HEAVEN project.
And it gets even stranger as the video goes on. Canavero moves on to say that the chinese have modified his original protocols, and now the transplant involves not only the head, but also the larynx and surrounding structures. This, according to Canavero, is so the patient can talk when he awakens. The procedure’s complexity and risk just went up exponentially…
Is Canavero about to make an exit?
But probably it’s the end of the video that makes us wonder the most about just how solid this whole human head transplant thing is turning out to be. At the end of the video, Sergio Canavero basically dismantles the whole HEAVEN project, transfers it to the chinese, and makes his exit from the project in the most subtle way possible.
After the cliffhanger introduction to his press conference, Canavero goes on to make several statements that basically say that nobody’s really going for a head transplant. He says that his original intention was not to transplant a human head, but rather to transplant a human brain. Then he says that China’s intent is also not to transplant a human head, but to cure disease which previously has been incurable. And that the ultimate goal of this whole thing, is the extension of human life.
Wait a second… did he just say that his human head transplant, is no longer the relevant topic? And in the process create a dozen different ways in which the whole project could eventually go, that have nothing to do with head transplants?
And of course, the ultimate “read between the lines” statement by Canavero is that he’s transferring the project to Xiaoping Ren. Because he now plans to work on a new project which involves human brain transplantation… something he calls BRAVE (Brain Anastomosis Venture). The chinese will continue to work on HEAVEN and GEMINI by themselves, and Canavero will move on to the BRAVE project.
So is the human head transplant… not possible?
After hearing all that, you’ve gotta wonder whether this human head transplant thing is actually as most physicians said at the start: impossible. Sergio Canavero basically just exited the stage, and left the head transplant project in the hands of chinese doctors… who will supposedly announce some time in the future what their findings are. And he also made a bunch of statements that basically seem to say that the head transplant line of work, might end some time soon and turn into a more “mainstream” line of research.
Despite being fans of this whole human head transplant story, it wouldn’t surprise us if in the end the whole thing turned out to be an impossibility, and this is Canavero’s way of exiting the stage without having to take heat from the media and medical community.
We’ll just have to wait a few days, and see what the chinese have to say about this whole thing. According to Sergio Canavero, aside from the papers they’re going to publish on the head transplant exercise, the chinese will also publish two papers in Bioethics Neuroscience shortly, where they’ll fully address the ethical implications of the head transplant procedures.
What we see there, if anything at all, will probably determine whether the HEAVEN head transplant project is for real… or just another medical publicity stunt, aimed at increasing sales of Canavero’s latest book, Medicus Magnus.