Head scientists pair up for disputed 'Frankenstein' surgery

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Two leading transplant scientists, an Italian physician and his Chinese counterpart, plan to work together to conduct the world's first human head transplant, they told Xinhua in an interview last week.

Sergio Canavero, a controversial physician who previously announced he will attempt to transplant a human head to a new body, said he'll partner with Ren Xiaoping, a Chinese surgeon with the second affiliated hospital of Harbin Medical University, on this ultimate medical challenge.

"[A successful] head transplant will change the course of human history by curing incurable medical conditions," Canavero told Xinhua at an academic conference in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. "Ren Xiaoping is the only person in the world able to lead this project."

He said Ren's creation of new models in transplant etiology and experience in clinical etiology is what attracted him to the partnership.

Ren, 53, regarded as a real-life Dr. Frankenstein by his critics,triggered public debate after successfully transplanting the head of one mouse to another's body in 2013. He announced plans to perform the operation on primates this year.

His team has since performed nearly 1,000 head transplants on mice. They have tested various methods to help the mice live longer after surgery, hitting a survival record of one day.

Canavero and Ren plan to establish an international medical team. They have identified a 30-year-old Russian computer scientist with muscular dystrophy as the first patient.

However, both of them admit that there are many technical difficulties with linking the nervous system, blood vessels and spinal cord in order to prevent the body from rejecting the head.

Ren said Canavero has a strong background regarding the central nervous system's ability to regenerate.

In addition to technical difficulties, they must also design special equipment, instruments, medicines and surgical methods.

The complicated project could take place in least two years with full funding, proper staff and strong leadership.

It partially depends on the funding and where the procedure is conducted, Ren said.

"The country has not been decided yet. The team may also invite more experts from other countries," he said, noting there are no specific laws against such procedures in China.

The world's first attempted head transplant dates back to 1970, when American neurosurgeon Robert J. White transplanted the head of one monkey to the body of another. The monkey died after several days due to immunorejection.

Head transplants, which seem more at home in science fiction, have long drawn skepticism, with many people criticizing the morals and ethics involved.

Wang Yifang, a medical ethics expert with the Institute of Medical Humanities at Peking University, believes there are stricter ethical evaluations that need to take place when it comes to human head transplants.

"It's very complicated. You have your own head but another's body, so who are you?" he asked. "Even if it becomes possible, using a donor's body, whose healthy organs can help several people, on just a single person might not be fair. Also where can donors be found?"

Ren supports his plan, saying it has been thought out thoroughly. He hopes such experiments might help people with spinal cord injuries, cancer or muscular dystrophy in the future.

He said people were also against the first human hand transplant, but they accepted it after the operation was successful.

"Head transplants are sensitive and controversial. But as a scientist, we won't give up because it's controversial," he said.

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