Remember all that hubbub about the world’s first head transplant? The one that was supposed to be performed this year? Of course you do. All the elements sound like they were ripped right out of a straight-to-DVD sci-fi flick. The mad scientist played by a maverick Italian surgeon with a shaved head, round wire-rim spectacles and grey goatee. A Russian man, wheelchair-bound, wasting away under the grip of a terminal illness, willing to try anything. A medical community aghast at the likely outcome of the surgery, throwing around words like “impossible”, “madman”, and “horrific death”.
So what the hell happened? Did the surgery take place? Did we just not hear about it because the patient died?
To answer that, we need to go back a bit.
When Dr Sergio Canavero, the Italian neurosurgeon at the heart of this tale, published a paper in 2013 explaining how he could reconnect a severed spinal cord in a head transplant operation, a good chunk of the world’s medical experts basically called him a quack. You’re short on detail, they said. We don’t have the technology yet. None of the animals we’ve tried this on have ever gained the use of the new body, let along lived more than a few days.
But one man saw the maverick surgeon’s paper as a chance to live a normal life: Valery Spiridonov, a Russian suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman’s disease, a genetic condition that breaks down muscles and destroys cells in the brain and spinal cord. The condition has left Spiridonov basically folded into his wheelchair and dependent on others for the remainder of what’s generally expected to be a short life. But maybe, just maybe, if he were to have his head transplanted onto another’s body he could live better?
Spiridonov reached out to Canavero, becoming the first person to volunteer to be the human guinea pig for the procedure. With Spiridonov on board, more details of the surgery, known in medical terms as a cephalosomatic anastomosis, began to emerge. The donor body and Spiridonov would be cooled to somewhere between 17 and 10 degrees celsius before a team of around 150 - 80 of them surgeons - begin work on the procedure that could take anywhere from 36-72 hours. Veins and arteries need to be connected, and then, crucially, the spinal cords severed with a diamond-tipped blade and reconnected. Cries of “quackery” rang out with each new detail, but Canavero was unmoved.
“There is no way I’m accepting any sort of criticism about the medical reasons for doing it,” he told The Guardian in October 2015. “The only person who can decide to undergo this surgery is the man who will benefit. Not you. Not society. The patient decides.”
By late 2016, a rough date had been set: sometime in 2017, probably December. Things went quiet for a while.
Then in April this year, a surprise announcement: the operation would now be taking place in China, and Spiridonov would not be involved. There was some confusion about his withdrawal. Canavero’s media representatives told Newsweek that because the surgery was happening in China it would be easier to get a Chinese donor, despite Spiridonov appearing quite capable of international travel to spruik the good doctor’s plans. They weren’t even sure when the change was announced that Canavero had spoken to Spiridonov. Elsewhere, it was reported that Spiridonov had pulled out because Canavero had been unable to guarantee he’d be able to walk after the procedure - something Spiridonov told The Guardian in 2015 he’d been promised - but that claim wasn’t backed by a source or a quote.
In his first comments after the announcement, Spiridonov said: “Given that I cannot rely on my Italian colleague, I have to take my health into my own hands.” He appears not to hold a grudge though, saying he wasn’t offended, and indeed, a little bit relieved. In what must have been the most satisfying pun of his life, Spiridonov told the Daily Mail, “I feel a weight has been lifted off my chest”.
For his part, Canavero is pushing on. He says the surgery will now take place in early 2018 the Chinese city of Harbin under the direction of Dr Ren Xiaoping, a friend of Canavero’s who was involved in the world first hand transplant, with Canavero assisting due to the language barrier. He’s also brushed off suggestions that the move has anything to do with the perception that Chinese medical bioethics might be a little more flexible for what is an extremely controversial operation.
“China has the technology and all of the necessary resources to carry out the operation,” Canavero said. “That is why we will perform the procedure in China.”
“By becoming the first country to transplant a human head, China will prove that it has a leading position in medicine.”
Well. I guess some people will do anything to get ahead.