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Experts weigh in on head 'transplant'

chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-11-20 19:46

On Friday, Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero announced that a team led by himself and Professor Ren Xiaoping from China had successfully performed the first human head transplant on a corpse at Harbin Medical University. He also mentioned the prospect of doing such a surgical operation on living humans.

Is his claim even possible? Two experts shared their views with China Daily's Zhang Zhouxiang:

Wang Yue, a professor at the Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University

Personally, I think it is a little misleading to call what Canavero and Ren have done "a surgical operation". "Surgical operations" are done on living human or animal bodies and they mean to help to sustain life or improve its living conditions; "Transplanting" the head of one corpse to the body of the other should be more properly called "dissection".

Besides, Canavero claimed that the 18-hour "operation" showed it is possible to reconnect the spine, nerves and blood vessels, without ever mentioning whether he succeeded in reconnecting them. In practice, the most difficult part lies not in repairing blood vessels or muscle, but in reconnecting the nerves and reactivating them, or letting the signals transmit through the re-connected nerves. Unless there is a breakthrough in the impairment of wounded nerves, it is irresponsible to do such an "operation" and hype it up.

Further, Canavero said they would "imminently" move onto a living human who was paralyzed from the neck down. According to our standards, medical professionals must do enough tests on animals before implementing any new surgical operation to human bodies. However, Canavero mentioned a few tests he and his team did to animals. For example, last year they had successfully grafted a head onto the body of a monkey, but there is no total number (of these tests). Neither has any medical authority claimed to have granted them any approval.

Therefore, the attempt to do the "operation" on living humans must be put under strict regulation. Maybe we can hold a more tolerant view towards experimental "operations", but when it comes to real operations, professionals, the media and supervisors must all be cautious.

Zhang Tiankan, vice-chief editor of Encyclopedia magazine and a former medical researcher

Canavero said he would do the head transplant on living humans. Let's assume he had successfully done it and the person survived after the operation.

A new problem would then emerge: Who is the new person? Is he the previous head owner or the previous body owner? The biological, ethical, and legal affairs involved will be unprecedentedly complicated.

Biologically, the person would suffer from chaos because his/her mind resided in the head, but his/her body belonged to someone else. When he/she looked at the new body, which happens every hour, the self-recognition problem might be a big challenge for him/her.

Ethically, if the person who received the operation married and had children, that would be a very big problem because the children inherited DNA from the body. Should the children be considered the new person's children? Would he/she accept the children?

None of the above-listed problems are as big as the legal one. Whose identity should he/she inherit, the head's or the body's? Whose property? Whose family? Would the person be given a new social security number, or should he/she use the old number of either the head or the body owner's?

Luckily, none of the above will happen in the near future, because there is no medical authority openly issuing approval for a head transplant on any living human yet. I hope the medical authorities will be as cautious as they always are, because such a transplant would cause many more problems than benefits.

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