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Surgeon: Human head transplant possible in 2 years

The surgery involves mounting a patient's head onto a donor body, reconnecting blood vessels and fusing the spinal cords.

By Doug G. Ware

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Scientific know-how and medical technology is at a level so sophisticated that the first human head transplant can be available to be performed just two years from now, an Italian neurosurgeon says.

Dr. Sergio Canavero details such a procedure in New Scientist -- a British weekly science magazine -- and says the ability exists to successfully perform the transplant, which involves literally mounting a patient's head onto a donor's body. From that point forward, the only part of the patient's body that would belong to the one they were born with would be from the neck up.

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The procedure would involve substantial preparation, major surgery and weeks of healing, Canavero says, but it is doable. Britain's Telegraph reported Canavero's comments Thursday, which have also been published for peer review in this month's Surgical Neurology International journal.

According to Canavero, both the recipient's head and the donor's body would require cooling at the start of the procedure to lengthen the time the body's cells can survive without oxygen. Blood vessels would be joined by tubes and the spinal cords of each body cut before the patient's head is placed onto the donor's body.

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At that point, Canavero says, the spinal cord would be fused together with the aid of polyethylene glycol -- a chemical that helps fat within membranes to mesh.

Following the surgery, the patient would be placed into a medically induced coma for about a month so the body can heal without movement. Canavero said the patient would likely be able to move his extremities and speak in his own voice immediately upon awakening -- and begin walking within a year.

While it might seem remarkable that such a procedure might ever be performed successfully in any of our lifetimes, Canavero believes it could be accomplished in just two years -- if the medical community supports it.

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"I'm trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you," Canavero said.

"He wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer," New Scientist said in publishing Canavero's work. "He claims the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body's immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017."

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Canavero, a member of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, told New Scientist he plans to unveil the radical procedure in June at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons conference in Maryland. The hope is to get interested parties together and work toward making the surgery a reality.

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Canavero told New Scientist that several people have volunteered to receive a new body.

However, such an endeavor is fraught with risk and permeated with what may be insoluble ethical concerns. If the surgery ever did become feasible, there's no telling how much a head transplant might cost, how donor bodies would be chosen, or what restrictions might be placed on such a procedure. What's more, it's possible the surgery might one day become elective or cosmetic -- leading to further ethical worries and perhaps even existential or religious questions.

Some skeptics believe that is a heavy price to pay for a procedure that isn't even guaranteed to work.

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"There is no evidence that the connectivity of cord and brain would lead to useful sentient or motor function following head transplantation," Richard Borgens, director of the Center for Paralysis Research at Purdue University, told New Scientist.

Many of the surgeons contacted by New Scientist refused to even comment on the concept. Others who did said it sounded too far-fetched to warrant serious consideration. But, Canavero notes, history has shown that skeptics are sometimes wrong.

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"We all know that, for instance, in 1903 the Wright Brothers flew their first plane when every single scientist at the time believed that was totally impossible," Canavero told Britain's Sky News on Thursday. "I don't believe the word 'impossible.'"

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The concept of a head transplant isn't anything new. Scientists performed one on a monkey in 1970, but the animal ultimately died after only nine days because its immune system rejected the new head.

Canavero proposed the idea two years ago, but most experts dismissed the idea. It's not yet known whether any of his colleagues will feel differently this time around.

"The real stumbling block is the ethics," Canavero said. "Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it."

"I embrace the concept of spinal fusion," American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons Chairman William Mathews said. "I think there are a lot of areas that a head transplant can be used, but I disagree with Canavero on the timing. He thinks it's ready, I think it's far into the future."

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