The Resurrection of Head-Transplant Surgery
Ethically dubious as it may seem, the first successful head-transplant surgery was performed by a Soviet scientist by the name of Vladimir Demikhov, to form a two-headed dog. The transplant surgeon successfully grafted the head and forelegs of a smaller dog, Shavka, onto a bigger dog, Brodyaga. The ground-breaking news was that both dogs survived the intricate procedure and were able to see and move around independently, at first. Alas, this did not last; both expired four days later. Being a dedicated surgeon, Demikhov tried the experiment more than 24 times. The longest survival for any two-headed dog was a month. The deaths usually occurred due to immune-rejection.
To conduct the procedure, an incision was made at the base of Brodyaga’s neck to expose the jugular vein (a large vein in the neck), the aorta (artery supplying blood from the heart to the organs) and a segment of the spinal column. Subsequently, two holes were drilled through the bony part of one vertebra and plastic strings threaded through each of the holes. Through this, the head and neck of the smaller dog was literally stitched to the neck of the large dog, allowing them both to share the same heart to sustain life.1
Amidst the tensions of the Cold War, the Soviet surgeon inspired an American surgeon named Robert White to conduct head-transplants on monkeys in the 1970s. White placed the head of one monkey onto the body of another monkey. Since the scientists were not able to fuse the spinal cords, the recipient monkey could not move its new head, though facial expressions could be observed. The monkey was kept on artificial ventilation, but died nine days after the procedure as a result of multiple complications.
At the Cutting Edge of the Impossible
Now, the horror of Frankenstein might spring into action again in 2017. Sergio Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, intends to use head-transplant surgery to extend the lives of people suffering from muscular degeneration disorders. These disorders render the patients paralysed. His first subject will be a terminally ill Russian computer scientist suffering from a congenital genetic muscle-wasting disorder called Werdnig-Hoffman disease. If the procedure gets the green light, the volunteer-to-be, Valery Spiridonov, would obtain his new body from a brain-dead donor.
The complex procedure would involve both donor and patient having their heads severed from their spinal cord concurrently using an ultra-sharp blade to produce a clean cut. The head of the patient would subsequently be placed onto the donor’s body and attached using polyethylene glycol, a glue-like chemical, to fuse the two ends of the spinal cord together. Polyethylene glycol has previously been demonstrated to promote the growth of spinal cord nerves in animals, but whether its effectiveness can be successfully translated to humans remains to be proven.2 The muscles and the blood supply would be stitched up before the patient would be induced into a coma for four weeks, to allow the head and body to heal together. If all goes to plan, the patient upon waking should ideally be able to move, feel their face and speak with the same voice. With the advancement of potent immunosuppressive drugs in recent years, it is predicted that immune rejection could be avoided, as in other transplant surgeries. To further improve chances of success, the head and body would be cooled to give the surgeons more time and to extend the time the cells can survive without oxygen. The details of the proposed surgery and its technical aspects are briefly outlined in the figure on page 16.3
Demikhov was the first ever surgeon to demonstrate the possibility of heart and lung transplants. This procedure has undoubtedly saved numerous lives and his work deserves respect. The Frankenstein approach he initiated on dogs in the form of head transplants was revived in monkeys but potentially sees its resurrection in humans. However, the Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero would need to amass 11.1 million dollars and a team of 150 doctors and nurses, to accomplish the proposed 36-hour ground-breaking operation. Whether this mission impossible will thus become possible, remains to be seen. If successful, the result could raise profound questions at the medical, psychological and even spiritual level, relating to human identity and the relationship of the soul to the body.
1. Igor E. Konstantinov, “At the Cutting Edge of the Impossible: A Tribute to Vladimir P. Demikhov,” Texas Heart Institute Journal 36, no. 5 (2009): 453-458.
2. Florentia Papastefanaki et al., “Intraspinal Delivery of Polyethylene Glycol-coated Gold Nanoparticles Promotes Functional Recovery After Spinal Cord Injury,” Molecular Therapy 2 3, no. 6 (2015): 993-1002, doi:10.1038/mt.2015.50.
3. Sergio Canavero, “The “Gemini” Spinal Cord Fusion Protocol: Reloaded,” Surgical Neurology International6, no. 1 (2015): 18, doi:10.4103/2152-7806.150674.