Sergio Canavero: a revolution in medicine

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Sergio Canavero: a revolution in medicine

Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has announced further details about the plan to carry out the world’s first head transplant surgery. In a turn of events, the operation will no longer be performed on Valery Spiridonov, a Russian man suffering from the muscle-wasting Werdnig-Hoffman's disease, with whom Canavero has been working for almost two years.

Instead, the operation will take place in China on a currently unselected Chinese national. A news release put out Thursday by OOOM, the media company handling Canavero’s press announced that Spiridonov, “who for a long period was considered for being the first transplant patient, will not be the first person whose head will receive a new body.”

It was unclear why Spiridonov was no longer involved. Georg Kindel, publisher & editor-in-chief of OOOM, tells Newsweek it was simply about where the surgery will be taking place. “Because the head transplant will be conducted in China it’s much easier to get a Chinese donor,” he says. “That’s the main reason. I’m not sure if Professor Canavero has talked to Valery in the meantime. I don’t know the reaction of Valery. However, if the head transplantation succeeds—and we all hope and are confident that it will succeed—then it will not be the last, so it will only be a question of time when Valery will get a new body.”

Canavero, in an interview with OOOM, said the first human head transplant will take place within 10 months. He did not specify a date for the surgery, but Kindel said the team is on track to carry it out at the end of the year: “They have a tight schedule but the team in China say they are ready to do it. Professor Canavero always said we will be ready at the end of 2017 and—if there is a strong power in China behind the project — it seems it definitely will be at the end of this year or the start of next year that the entire procedure will be conducted.”


Xiaoping Ren and Sergio Canavero, the surgeons behind the plans for the world's first human head transplant.OOOM-SERGIO CANAVERO

At present, Canavero and Xiaoping Ren, of the Harbin Medical University in China, have presented little evidence to convince the scientific community their plan will be a success. Canavero previously has provided a brief outline of what they intend to do, but with relatively little detail of the steps involved. Research outlining experiments on animals have also failed to convince critics, many of whom say we are nowhere near having the technology required to undertake such a complex procedure.

In the press release, Canavero said they have several papers relating to head transplants that are currently under peer review and will appear in “renowned scientific medical journals”—although he did not specify which journals. “I can only disclose that there has been massive progress in medical experiments, which would have seemed impossible even as recently as a few months ago,” he said. “The milestones we have reached will undoubtedly revolutionize medicine.”

Asked about why Canavero and Ren are keeping their research such a closely guarded secret—something they have been criticized for in the past—Kindel said it is to do with the technologies they are developing: “Are these procedures that can be patented? If this is the case then it will be done,” he says. “It’s the same as with pharmaceutical companies. They conduct research for years and don’t publish anything, then at a certain stage they go out and inform the media and public.”

Several people working in the field have also criticized the scientists on the basis that if they have the technology to repair spinal cords—one of the key parts of the surgery—then they should be developing this to treat people who are paralyzed, instead of holding it back for a surgery many believe will not work.

“[Repairing the spinal cord] was part of the entire research for the head transplantation,” Kindel says. “At the beginning they were just trying their technique and thought, well maybe it works—but it does work. It was astonishing for the entire team. It’s just part of the entire process. And if it is the case they can help tetraplegics and paraplegics, then this is really a huge step forward in medicine.”

Kindel said he and the team know of no legal restrictions or regulations that would prevent them from carrying out the surgery. In China, surgeons are now waiting for journals to approve the studies they have submitted—after which point the findings will become public.“This is something that is completely new and could change medicine,” he says. “If this works—and all the studies seem to show it will work—then this is really a major step forward for medicine in general.”

Prof. Sergio Canavero, a neurosurgeon from Torino, Italy, intends to write medical history: he is planning the world’s first transplantation of a human head. In an exclusive interview with OOOM magazine, the medical pioneer announces – for the first time – the facts.

Four years ago, his announcement was featured in all global media outlets: Prof. Sergio Canavero, renowned neurosurgeon from Turin, is planning the world’s first transplantation of a human head. The subsequent outcry resonated loudly throughout the medical community: many experts agreed that such an undertaking would never be successful, much less at any point within the next few decades. However, together with various teams in the US, China and South Korea, the author of more than 140 scientific publications continued to pursue the plan he called HEAVEN (Head Anastomosis Venture). In his GEMINI protocol, Canavero outlines every necessary step of the procedure in detail, laid out like in an instruction manual. Whereas the media covered his project in thousands of features published and broadcast around the globe from CNN to the New York Times, from the Independent to the Guardian, Sergio Canavero reached one milestone after another. In an exclusive interview with OOOM, the medical pioneer now reveals, for the first time, facts about a procedure that may not only fundamentally change medicine but also the lives of millions of people in wheelchairs:

  • The world’s first human head transplant will be performed within the next ten months.
  • The procedure will be performed in China.
  • Experienced surgeon Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University, a close friend of Canavero, will lead the surgical team performing the head transplant. He previously was part of the surgery team in the first hand transplantation in the US.
  • The first head transplant patient will not be Russian Valery Spiridonov but a Chinese citizen.
  • There are already potential candidates for the operation.
  • Meanwhile, Prof. Canavero is already planning his next coup: the world’s first brain transplant, slated to take place in three years at the latest. He has already started to assemble a team for the procedure.
  • For this purpose, the creation of the first life-extension institute is already in planning – a facility in which such procedures could be conducted in the future.

Incredible results. Xiaoping Ren will announce the exact schedule for the head transplant procedure in a special press conference in China in the next two months. Many experiments have already been conducted and, according to Prof. Canavero, have yielded “incredible results, which will change the course of medicine.” Dr. Ren will publish his findings in leading medical journals in the near future. The world’s first head transplant reportedly poses far fewer surgical and medical obstacles than previously assumed. The duration of the procedure will allegedly be significantly shorter than 72 hours. “I can only congratulate my friend and colleague Xiaoping Ren; his accomplishment is a masterstroke,” says Canavero. In an exclusive interview with OOOM personally authorized by Prof. Canavero, he states – for the first time – the facts of the groundbreaking procedure.

Professor Canavero, four months ago, the New York Time announced in a five-line paragraph that the world’s first head transplant would be conducted in December 2017 in the Chinese city Harbin. So far, this has not been confirmed. Are these reports correct?
Yes, they are correct. The world’s first human head transplant will be conducted in less than ten months. The Chinese team of doctors is led on site by Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University, a close friend of mine and an extraordinarily capable surgeon. The operation will be conducted in Harbin.

What can you tell us concretely about the operation?
At present, nothing in detail. When the time comes, the official news will be announced by Xiaoping’s team in China. At the moment, I can only disclose that there has been massive progress in medical experiments that would have seemed impossible even as recently as a few months ago. The milestones that have been reached will undoubtedly revolutionize medicine. That much I can already say. We have just submitted the results of these studies for publication to renowned scientific medical journals, so we do not wish to preempt the upcoming publication.

If the world’s first head transplant will take place in China, then the Russian candidate Valery Spiridonov will not be the first patient on whom the operation will be conducted.
That is correct. The first patient will be Chinese.

Are there already candidates?
Yes, there are numerous candidates. Which is not surprising, considering that many volunteers from all over the world came forward. However, the final decision is only made immediately prior to the operation, as it also depends on the body donor, who has to be compatible with the receiver in many ways.


Are you involved in the preparations?
Of course. However, Xiaoping Ren leads the team on site, which is necessary for several reasons, not least the language aspect. We talk on Skype on a daily basis and coordinate all steps. What Xiaoping Ren, who was also part of the team performing the US’ first hand transplant, accomplishes at his hospital is incredible.

One of the central problems that a head transplant poses is the challenge to reconnect the severed spinal cord in a way so that controlling the body and extremities through the nerves becomes possible again. Experts consider this problem impossible to solve.
This problem has now been solved. We published an article in the September 2016 issue of the scientific journal Surgical Neurology International in which we outline how we succeeded in fully restoring the functionality and motor activity of entirely severed spinal cords in mice using a fluid called Texas-PEG that was developed by a team at Rice University led by Prof. James Tour. In other words, the mice were able to run again, as the nerve cords were restored. I do not wish to preempt the publication, but I can say this: many controlled studies have been conducted in South Korea and China on a range of very different animals, and the results are unambiguous: the spinal cord – and with it the ability to move – can be entirely restored.

Are these results going to have an impact on people sitting in wheelchairs?
Based on the knowledge available today, we can assume that we will enter a new era, one that holds hope for many people.

If the first head transplantation is actually conducted, you will revolutionize medicine. What will be next?
The next step is already under way. We are currently planning the world’s first brain transplant, and I consider it realistic that we will be ready in three years at the latest. A brain transplant has many advantages: first, there is barely any immune reaction, which means the problem of rejection does not exist. The brain is, in a manner of speaking, a neutral organ. If you transplant a head with vessels, nerves, tendons and muscles, rejection can pose a massive problem. This is not the case with the brain. What may be problematic, however, is that no aspect of your original external body remains the same. Your head is no longer there; your brain is transplanted into an entirely different skull.

Does this not pose serious problems for the human psyche? Are we even capable of cognitively grasping such a situation? Are we able to handle it?
It creates a new situation that will certainly not be easy, but think about what that means.


What are you referring to?
Have you heard of the company Alcor?

You mean the American company that specializes in deep freezing and storing bodies after death?
Exactly. You preserve either the entire body or just the brain. The process is called vitrification. First, your body is frozen at minus 196 degrees Celsius; then, it is submerged in liquid nitrogen. That said, Alcor does not know how many of the company’s clients will be brought back to life. In interviews, spokespeople of the company tend to state that this task is one for the doctors and scientists of the future to solve. It is nice, though, that someone will know what to do with these frozen brains in 100 or 200 years. I have good news for them.

We will try to bring the first of the company’s patients back to life, not in 100 years. As soon as the first human head transplant has taken place, i.e., no later than in 2018, we will be able to attempt to reawaken the first frozen head.

That means you aim to transplant one of the frozen brains into a donor body?
Precisely. We can try out whether the method works and whether freezing brains actually makes sense or if we can forget that entire approach.

More concretely, that means: after the (head) transplant is before the (brain) transplant. Once the first head is transplanted, you will turn to the brain?
The process is already under way. We are working on it in parallel.

How are the patients being prepared for the first head transplant?
We developed a virtual reality system together with Inventum Bioengineering Technologies, our partners from Silicon Valley. The system is designed to give patients the first tangible sensation of how it will be when they will be able to walk and move. Naturally, the psyche plays a major role in the process, and we want to be prepared for all eventualities. Together with Inventum’s CEO Alexander Pavlovcik, we developed the first protocol worldwide to enable patients to train for their new bodies months before the actual operation. A scientific study on the subject will be published in Surgery Neurology International.

You also developed a special scalpel for the head transplant.
Prof. Farid Amirouche, one of the leading experts of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the director of the bio-mechanic research laboratory, developed a very special scalpel that enables surgeons to make incisions on the micrometer and nano-scale that are more exact that anything that has ever been possible. It is, without a doubt, the sharpest and most precise blade in the world. The scalpel makes it possible to severe the spine with a clean cut and with minimal impact on the nerves.


What would you consider a success? If the patient lives for hours, days, or years?
If he lives as long as an organ transplant patient. Hours or days would not be a success, yet a substantially longer period would be.

What was the decisive factor behind the decision to perform the world’s first head transplant in China?
The conditions in China are ideal to make the operation a success. There were a number of options on the table, but with Harbin, we chose the best.

You know the hospital?
Of course. Harbin University even named me professor honoris causa. China will provide the hospital and the personnel Xiaoping Ren will lead the team on site; I will assist, and the first patient will be Chinese. By becoming the first country to transplant a human head, China will prove that it has a leading position in medicine. China will win the Nobel Prize. The country has already secured its status in science and technology and will now claim the status of being a super power in medicine as well.




How will you prepare for the head transplant?
I have been learning Chinese for five years now, immersed myself in the Chinese way of thinking, and discovered that the Chinese are entirely different from us in every respect. China will show us that we are not capable of performing such a procedure in the Western world.

When speaking of the country, what do you associate with “China”?
My first thought is of Xiaoping Ren. We are good friends. However, Xiaoping Ren is not Xiaoping Ren. Xiaoping Ren is China. There are local authorities, there is the government, and there is the state leadership. China has the technology and all of the necessary resources to carry out the operation. That is why we will perform the procedure in China. I am grateful to China, as the country immediately understood the dimension of this undertaking.

Can your head transplant provide answers to the eternal question of what happens after death? Whether there is a heaven or not?
In a few months, we will severe a body from a head in an unprecedented medical procedure. In this phase, there is no life activity – not in the brain, not anywhere else in the body. The patient is dead, clinically dead. If we bring this person back to life, we will receive the first real account of what actually happens after death. The head transplant gives us the first insight into whether there is an afterlife, a heaven, a hereafter, or whatever you may want to call it or whether death is simply a flicking off of the light switch and that’s it.



That could shake our entire conception of the world.
I am also performing this operation to prove or refute that our consciousness is created by the brain. If we are able to prove that our brain does not create consciousness, two things will happen: religions will be swept away forever. They will no longer be necessary, as humans will no longer need to be afraid of death. They will know as a scientific fact that our consciousness – or whatever it is – survives death. We no longer need a Catholic Church, no Judaism and no Islam because religions in general will be obsolete. Secondly, we will ask ourselves what the meaning of life is. I am born, I live, I die, and during these stages, I age and get sick. What is the purpose of my life? If we take hope out of life, out of the human equation, then what remains?

A depressing outlook.
I think about it a lot. It will be a significant moment, a turning point in human history, when we will finally be able to prove what we have been speculating about, what we have discussed and questioned for centuries. I am for life, I believe in life.

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