China could host 1st human head transplant

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Two transplant specialists, an Italian doctor and his Chinese counterpart, are getting together to conduct the world's first human head transplant.

Ren Xiaoping(L), a Chinese surgeon at a hospital affiliated to Harbin Medical University and Sergio Canavero.[File photo]

Ren Xiaoping(L), a Chinese surgeon at a hospital affiliated to Harbin Medical University and Sergio Canavero.[File photo] 

Sergio Canavero says he'll partner with Ren Xiaoping, a Chinese surgeon at a hospital affiliated to Harbin Medical University.

At a recent conference in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, Canavero said a successful head transplant would "change the course of human history by curing incurable medical conditions."

He added: "Ren Xiaoping is the only person in the world able to lead this project."

Ren, 53, triggered public debate after successfully transplanting the head of a 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 and have identified a 30-year-old Russian computer scientist with muscular dystrophy as the first patient.

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

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

When and where the project will take place has not yet been determined.

"The country has not been decided yet. The team may also invite more experts from other countries," Ren said, adding that there were no laws against such procedures in China.

The world's first head transplant was in 1970, when American neurosurgeon Robert White transplanted the head of a monkey onto the body of another. The monkey died after several days when the transplant was rejected.

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 humans.

"It's very complicated. You have your own head but another's body, so who are you?" he said. "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 hopes such experiments might help people with spinal cord injuries, cancer or muscular dystrophy in the future.

He said there was opposition to the first human hand transplant, but they are now acceptable.

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

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