A recent paper by Dr. Sergio Canavero featured on Quartz outlines a procedure that could be used in the world's very first human head transplant. Modeled after successful head transplants performed on animals, the procedure overcomes the technical obstacles that previously made such a transplant impossible.
The biggest obstacle was connecting spinal cords to donor bodies, which would leave transplant recipients paralyzed. However, recent advances have been made in surgically reconnecting spinal cords in animals, which could be used for humans as well.
“The greatest technical hurdle to [a head transplant] is of course the reconnection of the donor’s (D)’s and recipients (R)’s spinal cords," Canavero writes in the paper. "It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage…. [S]everal up to now hopeless medical connections might benefit from such a procedure.”
Robert White successfully performed a head transplant on a rhesus monkey in 1970, and Canavero's procedure is very similar. Both patients must be in the same operating theater and both heads must be removed at the same time. The transplanting head needs to be reconnected to the circulatory system within an hour. The body and transplanted head must also be cooled to 54.6°F to 59°F. The final step is reconnecting the spinal cord.
Canavero proposes cutting spinal cords with a sharp knife before reconnecting it to the transplanted head.
“It is this “clean cut” [which is] the key to spinal cord fusion, in that it allows proximally severed axons to be ‘fused’ with their distal counterparts. This fusion exploits so-called fusogens/sealants….[which] are able to immediately reconstitute (fuse/repair) cell membranes damaged by mechanical injury, independent of any known endogenous sealing mechanism.”
He adds that materials like polyethylene glycol (PEG) could be used for the fusing, which has been used in fusing severed spinal cords in dogs.
If Canavero's speculations are correct, it could give paraplegics and muscular dystrophy patients new lives with full range of motion. However, the proposed procedure would have many technical issues attached to it and a hefty price tag -- Canavero estimates that a head transplant would cost $13 million.
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