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First attempt at human head transplant announced

Italian neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero announced the details of his plan to perform the first transplant of a human head. His volunteer will be Russian Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, or Werdnig-Hoffmann disease.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons on Friday, he said he was confident of his ability to perform the procedure.

The date for the operation has been set for late 2017. Mr Spiridonov’s head will be transplanted onto a donor’s body in what could be his best hope for survival, according to Reuters.

Although a head transplant is technically possible, it remains dangerous and ethically controversial. The two biggest medical challenges are to keep oxygen flowing through the head during the surgery, as well as a possible rejection of the alien body by the immune system.

The transplant of Mr Spiridonov’s head is estimated to take 36 hours and involve more than 100 medical personnel.

Head transplants have never been performed on people. Russian Vladimir Demikhov became famous in the 1950s and 60s for a series of head transplants on dogs. In 2001, US-American Dr Robert J White transplanted the head of a monkey. All animals died shortly after the operation.

Faced with heavy criticism and suspicion from colleagues, Dr Canavero said there had been controversy around the first heart transplant as well, which today is a common procedure.

People suffering from spinal muscular atrophy rarely reach adulthood. 30-year-old Spiridonov believes he has little to lose but bases his decision on what he believes to be best for science, and not necessarily for himself as a patient.

 

Elisabeth Brahier

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