Science is a great thing. It’s all around us and a lot of significant changes in the structure and development of our world can be attributed to it. It’s also constantly evolving. We always seem to be coming across new life-saving scientific findings-be it new medications or new treatments or anything in between. Such advancements are set to be put to trial in the medical community at the end of this year.
In 2013, Italian neurosurgeon, Dr. Sergio Canavero announced that he would be conducting the first human head transplant. His volunteer? 30 year-old terminally ill Russian patient, Valery Spiridonov. He later set a date, explaining that the surgery is officially set to take place in December of 2017-about 8 months from now. He also has confirmed that he will be performing the procedure as lead surgeon and has recruited Chinese surgeon, Dr. Xiaoping Ren, to be his assistant for the operation. Although skeptics view the concept of such a complex surgery absurd, Dr. Canavero is highly confident in his abilities to lead it-especially after dedicating 30 years to studying and planning for it. As a matter of fact, he states that it has “at least a 90% chance of success”.
His patient, Valery Spiridonov, suffers from a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy called Werdnig-Hoffman Disease. This disease is a rare autosomal-recessive disorder characterized by progressive weakness of the lower motor neurons. In more specific terms, it causes muscles to break down and kills nerve cells both in the brain and in the spinal cord-leading to limited movement. Not only does this disorder limit motor skills, but it can also be fatal. In Spiridonov’s case, he finds himself restricted to a wheelchair and is only able to carry out menial tasks such as feeding himself, typing, and controlling his wheelchair with a joystick.
This procedure will be particularly monumental in that, until now, no other transplant of its nature has been performed. Of course we are accustomed to hearing about heart transplants, liver transplants, and transplants involving pretty much all other integral organs of the body, but never of any featuring the brain.
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty details: as previously mentioned, the procedure has been scheduled for this December and is set to cost about 20 million dollars. It is also anticipated to last 36 hours-granted that there are no complications. Other than this, there will be about 150 other health professionals in the operating room, ready to ensure the procedure’s success.
As for the operation itself: the process will consist of various steps. First, the surgeons will seek permission for the body of a young brain-dead donor. Once access has been granted and the surgeons have propped the donor on the surgery table, they begin. They are set to commence the procedure by having Spiridonov brought in by another surgical team, which will have his body cooled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 15 degrees Celsius. Cooling his body at such an extreme temperature allows the patient to escape tissue failure for about an hour.
After this task has been completed, the surgeons will then proceed to coordinately excise both the patient’s and donor’s heads from their bodies. This will be done by the use of a transparent diamond blade, which has the ability to control cuts up to one-millionth of a meter. This action essentially ends up severing the spinal cords in both bodies at the same time. Then, through the use of a custom-made crane, Spiridonov’s head will be lifted and shifted onto the donor body’s neck. Both spinal cord ends would subsequently be fused together with the chemical polyethylene glycol, which has shown evidence of promoting cell regrowth in the spinal cord. Following this, the donor’s muscle and blood supply would be joined with the patient’s head.
Spiridonov would then be kept in a coma for a period of about three to four weeks. This time would be crucial for the stimulation of new nerve connections by the spinal cord and would also be handy in that it would consequently restrict any body movements, which could compromise the results of a successful surgery. Essentially, it would be a period for Spiridonov’s body to rest.
If this surgery is successful, it would not only be a victory for Dr. Canavero and his team, but it would also be a victory for science as a whole! With the success of a procedure as complex as this will also come a multitude of other medical advancements. Not only could other doctors and health professionals use this operation as a learning opportunity, but they might even become inspired: inspired to carry out their own medical visions that the world deems “impossible”.