We live an era where miraculous advancement in science and medicine is happening in daily basis & changes occurring in all spheres of human life, which hopefully will take us to the next step in human evolution. One of the most fascinating and controversial advances in the field of medical science, is supposed to take place this year (2018) and that is -- Head Transplant. Yes, you got that right; after transplant of organs like – Kidney, Bone Marrow, Liver, now it seems it is the turn of head to get transplanted. Now many people must have read about this really incredible development, that may happen very soon ; but most of the people are quiet sceptical about the procedure and it’s final outcome. Even the medical fraternity is seriously divided about the issue and with good reasons. But is it, the first time, that the concept of head transplant has been thought about ? No, certainly not. The world history/mythology, is full of anecdotes, bearing resemblances to the miraculous incident, that we may witness very soon (Although these are more in domain of fiction than actual scientific facts).
Lord Ganesha, is one of the most famous Gods in Hindu religion. He is worshipped by millions of people around the world and is believed to be bring Good Luck to all his followers. Lord Ganesha, has a head of an elephant and body of a human being. The description of Lord Ganesha, comes from religious scriptures, thousand of years old. Now as the legend goes – Lord Ganesha’s head was cut off (and destroyed) by his father Lord Shiva, in a fit of rage. But finally realizing his mistake (and to pacify his wife & mother of Lord Ganesha – Godess Parvati ), he finally brought back Lord Ganesha, back to life, by fixing a freshly cut Elephant’s head, to the neck of his son. This mythological legend appears to be one of the first mentioned incidence of Xenograft/Heterograft ( a graft taken from another species) head transplant.
SET – The Egyptian god of the deserts, who also became pharaoh after killing his brother, Osiris ; is pictured with red skin and head of an animal – part dog and part anteater. HORUS – son of Osiris and nephew of Set, who avenged his father’s death and became pharaoh, to whom all future pharaoh’s traced their roots ; is shown as a man with falcons head. SOBEK – The god of crocodiles, whose sweat is supposed to have created the rivers of the world, is mostly shown as a crocodile headed man. ANUBIS – God of funerals, is pictured as a man with jackal’s head. And the list goes on.
The Greek mythology is also full of characters, whose body descriptions are not exactly that of a normal human or animal like, but resembles an entity, which has combination of body organs, taken from multiple animals/organisms. Some of them are –
CENTAURS - The race of half men and half horse creatures, the upper torso was that of a man and lower part of body like a horse. CERBERUS – a gigantic dog with multiple heads. CHIMAERA --- A beast with lion’s head and body, a serpent for a tail and a goat’s body for midsection. ECHIDNA – A monster who was half woman and half snake, and mother of all monsters. GORGONS/ MEDUSA – a winged human female with living snakes in place of hair. HYDRA - A snake like monster with 9 heads. MINOTAUR – a creature with man’s body and bull’s head. SCYLLA - a female monster with six dog heads around her waist. SPHINX – A half bird, half woman creature.
One of the first science fiction of the western world – Frankenstein, is a novel written by English author Mary Shelley, tells about a young scientist Victor Frankenstein, who creates a creature in his laboratory – Adam, by joining together body parts taken from different dead bodies (one anatomical feature at a time). But in spite of successfully bringing it back to life, due to it’s hideous features the, creature is boycotted by society, and giving rise to unfortunate complications for everybody concerned. So this famous science fiction, finally ends in a negative notion, for it’s main protagonist and all the concerned people, giving a subtle message, that nature’s rules should not be tampered with.
According to an records, Edward Mordrake was born in 19th century, to a noble family and suffered from a strange medical condition. He was born with a second face, on back of his head. The second face was not under control of Edward, and was able to make laughing, crying and other strange noises. Edward had repeatedly asked surgeons, to remove the extra face from his body as it was not under his control and it made him highly uncomfortable. But no surgeon of the time had the audacity, to try something of that magnitude. Finally finding no hope ,and full of despair, Mordrake committed suicide at age of 23.
As any microvascular surgeon knows, reconnecting severed blood vessels ( like arteries and veins ) and nerves, is not just possible, but is routinely done for reimplantation of fingers and limbs of a person who had suffered traumatic injury to these body parts. Similarly in “ Free Flap “ surgeries, in which a Plastic surgeon covers a raw / exposed traumatic area of a body, by taking tissues from another part of body, and making anastomosis between the arteries, veins, nerves of the donor area with those of the recipient area, by very thin suture materials (done under the microscope). Even bone fragments can be joined together, by plating with stainless steel plate (or some other material). But all those are done to attach one part of body to another part, but in same person.
But as any organ donor knows, that organs like Liver,Heart, Kidney, Bone Marrow are transplanted from one individual to another individual (Allograft).
The first attempt of head transplant was made in 1908, when Alexis Carrel and Charles Claude Guthrie tried to graft the head of one dog, on a intact second dog ; the results (if any) were short lived. Since then many scientist and doctors have tried the procedure with various level of success in the initial stage, but the end result was always that of failure.
The latest proponent, for head transplant, is an Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero, who is attempting for a successful surgical head transplant by year 2018(he has been planning it since last 30 years). The target is to choose a patient, with a degenerative muscle disease, and transplant their head to a body of a brain dead person. It has been reported in certain sections of the media, that he has been already successful in attaching head of an corpse to a body, the next step was to replicate this result in a living human being. The steps of the surgery were being planned in the following lines
The first stage would be to cool down the head and body (around – 15 degree centigrade), so the brain cells do not die. Then the donor neck would be partially cut open and the blood vessel connected to the other body with tubes. In the next stage the spinal cord(of donor head) is cut with a very sharp knife and the head moved onto the recipient body and the spinal cord is fused together, with a substance called polyethylene glycol (a form of glue ). After that the muscles and the blood vessels are put together. Finally after the surgery is over the body is kept in a coma, for a month to prevent any movement and help in recovery. The 14 million pound experimental surgery is likely to take 36 hours and involve over 150 doctors and nurses.
According to the latest information, the surgery planned has been delayed behind schedule. The Russian volunteer Valery Spiridonov, has decided not to undergo the procedure. Now it will be carried out on a Chinese patient instead.
Well, a lots of body organs have already been successfully transplanted, so why so much scepticism is present about head transplant ? For starters, the most important body organ we are talking about here is the human brain. Degenerative changes start in human brain within a few minutes after stoppage of blood supply. Then the second problem would be to attach the numerous nerves and the blood vessels in question and making them work properly on the long run. Then there is the problem of using immunosuppressive drugs, to prevent rejection of the donor organ by the body, which may require lifelong close monitoring, to supervise if life threatening infection is occurring or not. Even if all the medical hassles are taken care of, there lies the legal and ethical issues, which is surely going to arise. What identity, the final successful outcome (if, that happens) of the surgery would have ? That of the donor person or the persons whose body was used ? That with associated emotional and legal implication can cause problems, which may overshadow the surgical procedure itself.
In spite of criticism from various parts of the world, the fact remains that it takes a lots of courage and conviction, to change the course of human evolution. According to Dr Canavero, if this surgery becomes successful, it will totally change the course of human future. It can even even provide immortality to Billionaire’s, who have the wish and affordability for this surgery ; they can fuse their age old head into body of a disease free healthy person in their 20s or 30s. It remains a hope for people with sever pathologies. Death can be postponed, maybe indefinitely.
The legal implications will be decided by the law of the land, and moral and ethical aspect would be judged by the persons concerned, but the fact remains that every great progressive step for the human race, has stemmed from audacity of a single human being. May Dr Canavero and his team succeed in their endeavours, to take the human race, one step closer to eternal healthy state.
(Disclaimer – The surgery’s date has not been yet finalised – as of June 2018; if at all it happens as planned ,it may have unpredictable and unprecedented results, which can not be predicted by anybody. Also we are neither in support or against, the procedure)