Russian Man with Spinal Cord Disease to Be First Recipient of Human Head Transplant

Russian Man with Spinal Cord Disease to Be First Recipient of Human Head Transplant
Science & Medicine

Medical News Today has reported on one of the most bizarre surgeries to ever be conducted. It will take place on a 30-year-old Russian man with a muscle wasting disease. An Italian surgeon will conduct the world’s first head transplant operation on the Russian volunteer.

In a project named HEAVEN-GEMINI, Dr. Sergio Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group (TANG) in Italy, with the help of over 100 surgeons, plans to cut off the head from a donor body and reattach the spinal cord and body to a Russian man, Mr. Spiridonov, who is suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease.

Spiridonov can hardly move on his own, and his condition usually causes mortality by the time a person is 20 years of age. It is possible that his advancing condition and its bleak outlook are his motivations for consenting to this extremely peculiar surgery.

His disease is caused by the loss of motor neurons in the spinal cord and regions of the brain that are connected to the spinal cord. Spiridonov told MailOnline that he volunteered for the project because he wants a chance for a new body before he dies.

Spiridonov said:

“I can hardly control my body now,” he said. “I need help every day, every minute. . .”

If the surgery is successful, a donor body will be attached to Spiridonov’s head via spinal cord fusion. The surgery will take more than 36 hours to complete, and Spiridonov will have to remain in a coma for up to three weeks so that the cords can heal and be artificially stimulated with electrical stimulation with implanted electrodes meant to boost the new connections between nerves.

Dr. Canavero thinks that with physical therapy, the patient could walk within a year. Right now he requires help to even sit up. Dr. Canavero has his detractors, and Spiridonov admits he is scared, but he also says the project is “interesting.” He explains:

“You have to understand that I don’t really have many choices. . . If I don’t try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.”

You can watch Spiridonov talk more about his decision to participate in the HEAVEN-GEMINI project in a video, here.

While Dr. Canavero has been called ‘nuts,’ he maintains that there has been success with animals in similar surgeries. His main challenges will be to keep the immune system from rejecting the head, and to keep the body alive and healthy while in a coma.

Arthur Caplan, PhD, director of medical ethics and NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY says the procedure must be conducted many more times on animals before it would ever be safe to complete on humans.

Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of California-Davis, said the project is so “overwhelming” that it likely won’t be completed. He says he doesn’t believe it will work because there are too many possible complications.

Spiridonov says he is well aware of the risks of the surgery, but he is still willing to take a chance on Dr. Canavero.

The procedure has not yet been confirmed, but if it does take place it could be carried out as early as 2016.