Meet the man proposing THE WORLD’S FIRST BRAIN TRANSPLANT and, perhaps, everlasting life.
MEET SERGIO CANAVERO, THE BRAIN BEHIND THE WORLD’S FIRST HEAD TRANSPLANT — AND, PERHAPS, THE KEY TO EVERLASTING LIFE
NOBODY HAS BEEN ABLE TO REPAIR A SPINAL CORD THAT’S BEEN FULLY (CUT CLEAN THROUGH). — DR. ATUL HUMAR, MEDICAL DIRECTOR AT TORONTO’S UNIVERSITY HEALTH NETWORK
Sergio Canavero, the 52-yearold Italian surgeon, relishes being described as “crazy as a bat.” He hasn’t watched television since 1993. He doesn’t own a car. He’s felt a deep affinity with Spider- Man’s nerdy Peter Parker. He has authored a book on the techniques of female seduction, adheres to a strict Mediterranean diet (“no bovine meat”), meditates and refrains from drink. He practises ju-jutsu and, in a recent interview, reflected on his “six-pack.”
Sometime next year, if he can find a hospital that will take him, Canavero will oversee the decapitation of the healthy head of one man and its transplantation onto the surgically beheaded body of another. And he doesn’t plan to stop there. In an hour-long Skype conversation with National Post, the eccentric physician outlined his vision to make us immortal.
“It wasn’t that I just woke up one day and said, ‘I want to do a head transplant’, ” the neurosurgeon said, while laying out his procedure that could, he argued, represent the key to everlasting life.
Canavero is the creator of HEAVEN, the “head anastomosis venture” project. His surgical protocol reads something like this: Two teams of international surgeons working together will swiftly and simultaneously lop off the heads of two men — one, the “recipient,” the other, the “donor,” an accident victim, for example, whose brain is dead but whose body is otherwise healthy. They will then shift the recipient’s head onto the donor body using a custom- made swivel crane, reconnect and stitch up the trachea, esophagus, the carotid arteries and jugular veins, link up the spinal cords, sew up the skin and wait for the recipient to reawaken. And, most hopefully, move. Canavero has his first volunteer: 31- year- old Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from a devastating muscle-wasting disease that has left his body compressed like an accordion.
He has his “fusogen,” a black, waxy, glue- like substance that will be used to try to reconnect the severed spinal cord stumps and coax the axons and neurons to regrow across the gap, like logs aligning in a river. William Sikkema, a brilliant young Canadian chemist from Langley, B.C., who still can’t believe he’s become involved in something so scientifically and ethically outlandish, created it.
Sikkema’s material is dubbed Texas-PEG. It has reportedly succeeded in restoring motor control in a rat, two weeks after its spinal cord was completely severed. Three weeks after surgery, the rat was standing on its hind legs. If Canavero’s human head transplant ( or, more accurate, body transplant) works, “it will work because of this,” Sikkema said.
Canavero’s head-grafting venture was initially envisioned as a cure for people living with horrible medical conditions. The field of transplant medicine has evolved light years since the first successful kidney transplant between identical twin brothers in the 1950s. Today, surgeons are transplanting hearts, livers, lungs, wombs, hands, forearms and even faces. Scientists are growing beating heart muscle from stem cells, while advances in immunosuppression have dramatically reduced the risk of rejection.
Still, decapitation is extremely complex surgery. Once severed, surgeons will have less than an hour to re-establish blood supply to Spiridonov’s head before risking irreversible brain damage.
Most significantly, “nobody has been able to repair a spinal cord that’s been fully transected — cut clean through,” said Dr. Atul Humar, medical director of the multi- organ transplant program at Toronto’s University Health Network, where Canada’s first hand transplant was performed last January on a 50-year-old registered nurse who lost her left arm below the elbow in a horrific traffic accident.
According to Canavero, the key to success is a swift, sharp severance of the cords, with minimal damage to the axons in the white matter and neurons in the grey. The typical spinal cord injury is more brutal.
Canavero is a widely published surgeon. He introduced surgical cortical brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease, wrote a textbook on central pain syndrome and has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications. He’s been working toward head- body transplants for 35 years.
He insists successful head transplantation will push the science of cloning forward. He envisions a day when humans will be able to grow our own clones made from our own DNA, and transfer our aging brains onto our vibrant young “selves” when our own bodies start to wither and fall apart. The old become young, like Benjamin Button.
He isn’t suggesting creating a “you- child,” letting the clone grow to, say, age 20, and then killing it in order to harvest the body. That would be tantamount to murder, he said. “The cloning I refer to, to become available some time in the 21st century, is an accelerated cloning, whereby you clone yourself up to age 20 in one year, without awakening the clone,” he explained.
“So, when you harvest the body, she will have never lived, and it probably would not be murder.”
To date, no human clone has ever been born, though scientists have cloned a monkey, our nearest relative. And, while ever the optimist, Canavero said cloning won’t become an option anytime soon. Still he sees life extension in HEAVEN. Transplanting an aging head onto a younger but clinically dead body would bathe that old head with fresh, young blood. And he’s not the least bit dissuaded by a newly published study that found young blood doesn’t reverse aging in old mice.
“If you take the head of an aging man, say, 80, like Rupert Murdoch, and you just take his head and connect it with the body of a 20- year- old, look, the head will not have a single drop of Rupert Murdoch’s blood. Not a single drop,” Canavero said.
Instead, the media mogul’s head would be “washed — literally washed, over and over — by this continuously flowing young blood. That is where you can really expect a rejuvenation effect that you will never, ever witness when you simply pop some young blood into the circulation of an old man.”
Indeed, he already sees a ready market in those opting to have their bodies and brains cryopreserved in vats of liquid nitrogen in the hope of one day being “reanimated,” their memories and personalities completely intact.