By Michael Lausberg
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero claims to have found a procedure to realize a project in transplant surgery that may strike us as something more fitting for a science fiction movie than today’s reality. He announced that a full body transplant could be possible in the next two years. In a full body transplant, the head of a living person would be transplanted to a donor cadaver’s body; such a procedure would seek to prolong the lives of people who suffer from terminal illnesses, replacing the diseased body with a healthy one.
The idea is not entirely new. Robert White and his team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland attempted to transplant a monkey’s head to another primate’s body in 1970. The project was eventually abandoned.
Canavero has drawn on their work in designing a method for full body transplants. The patient’s head and the donor’s body would first be cooled in order to reduce cell damage. Then the neck and the spinal cord would be severed using a very sharp knife. A clean cut would be necessary for minimizing nerve damage, and would make it possible to reconnect nerve ends. Then Canavero would use a substance called polyethylene glycol to fuse the spinal cord nerves. The patient would have to remain in a coma for several weeks following the procedure, and endure at least a year of physiotherapy before he or she would be able to move properly.
Many surgeons are skeptical about Canavero’s plans. The procedure’s many technical difficulties make it unlikely to happen in the near future.
The trickiest hurdle would be reconnecting the spinal nerves. This process required for this to happen is not well understood; if it were realized, however, the methods used could help those who suffer from paralysis walk again. There are no surgical cures for paralysis, and it is very difficult to predict how successful such a risky procedure might be.
Even if the procedure were successful, many other questions remain. How would the patient react to it? Many recipients of donor limbs have had psychological difficulty accepting the foreign appendages. A full body transplant would seem to take this problem to new levels. Who would be able to feel comfortable and remain consistent in his/her identity in a whole new body? A successful transplant certainly raises philosophical questions about continuity of identity.
Additionally, the project raises many ethical questions. “The real stumbling block is the ethics,” admits Canavero. The tasks of finding a donor, attempting the procedure, and testing the efficacy of methods all raise serious ethical concerns. Some religious groups already oppose donating single organs; donating an entire body would certainly be met with protest from these groups.
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