One nice thing about teddy bears is that if your dog tears the head off of your child’s favourite one, you can just sew it back on. But you don’t proclaim your achievement a “wild success” — rather, you say, “Here, I have fixed your lifeless play-thing.”
Sergio Canavero, who actually looks like the kind of guy who’d be really excited about head transplants (Image: AP)
Yet here comes Sergio Canavero, the controversial Italian doctor who just announced that he has performed a head transplant operation on a teddy bear made of bone-stuffed human meat. The announcement has come with an avalanche of news coverage claiming that the move was the first successful head transplant.
Scientists have been toying with the idea for about as long as organ transplantation has been around. Canavero himself announced human transplants would be possible in 2015. He says that research centres in the United States are unsupportive, reports USA Today. He claimed he performed the surgery on a monkey in 2016 but without reattaching the spinal cord and without a published paper. He went on to publish several papers claiming to sever and reattach animal spinal cords, but the papers don’t make clear whether he completely detaches or only mostly cuts through the cord before the procedure. These papers also didn’t have controls. His team published another paper this year, but once again didn’t report whether they completely severed the head.
Scientists are sceptical.
This morning, Canavero claimed in a press conference that he’d “realised the first human head transplant,” reports The Telegraph, and that a “full head swap between brain dead organ donors is the next stage”. He followed by calling a full-on head transplant “imminent”.
If you cut a tumour out of a corpse, you did not cure the corpse of cancer – you carved a slice of meat off of a raw roast. If you swap cadaver heads, it’s no different from sewing a drumstick to the wrong rotisserie chicken.
USA Today reports that Canavero has a volunteer, a paralysed Russian named Valery Spridonov, and that the procedure would go as follows:
Recipient and donor will placed [sic] in a sitting position to facilitate what’s expected to be more about 24 hours of gory, laborious work to separate and then reconnect vertebral bones, jugular veins, the trachea, esophagus and other neck structures. The recipient will be helped to breathe, and blood pumped around the body, with machines. The patient will be kept in drug-induced coma for an unspecified recovery time.
It’s totally possible that everything Canavero has done is honest, a head transplant is imminent, his procedure will work, and our scepticism is unwarranted. After all, he’s pretty much the only person who is doing this procedure, and ultimately crazy ideas are required to push boundaries.
But this is science. Very little study has been done on this procedure or its risks. And with something so radical, if it isn’t studied in an open, honest and realistic way, then it’s hard for others to take it seriously. So until we see some evidence of an actual head transplant where a spine is completely severed and reattached on something other than raw meat, we’re going to remain sceptical.