While it may sound like something out of a horror film, Italian Doctor Sergio Canavero is planning to make the first attempted human head transplant in 2017. His patient is Valery Spiridinov (in the photo), a Russian man afflicted with Werdnig-Hoffmann disease. This disease is often fatal, and it causes severe muscle atrophy. For Mr. Spiridinov that has meant living life in a wheelchair and being dependent upon others to provide his basic needs. For most people the kind of life that this man is forced to endure would be torture, so the fact that he is willing to risk his life for the chance at a more normal existence shouldn’t be surprising.
When the scientific and medical communities found out about the planned surgery of Doctor Canavero’s, there was a lot of concern, as well as claims that this type of transplant is unacceptable for many reasons. There are concerns over the ethics involved, but those concerns seem out of place since this is a transplant operation, and a wide range of transplants are done all the time.
Another major concern is that the life of Mr. Spiridinov will be placed in serious jeopardy during this experimental operation. However, what many people fail to take into account is that in this case the patient has very little to lose. He has a terminal illness and a very poor quality of life, so for him a chance for a better life is worth the risk.
From a technical standpoint, the biggest issue will involve trying to get the spinal cord of the patient to heal. Modern medicine cannot yet repair spinal injuries, which is why there are many people confined to wheelchairs and suffering from paralysis. The fear is that since this transplant will require the spinal cord of the patient to be severed, he would be left paralyzed following the surgery.
Should Doctor Canavero’s surgery prove successful, it could very well pave the way for a number of highly beneficial medical technologies and procedures in the upcoming years. Imagine the possibility of combining cloning with this type of surgery. That could mean that as you age you can have your body cloned, and then transplant your head onto a young, healthy, new body. While this type of procedure is obviously many years down the road, it remains an intriguing possibility for the future of medicine. For now the world will have to wait and see if Doctor Canavero’s experimental surgery is successful, and if it is, then the future of medicine may forever be changed.