A surgeon aiming to do the first human head transplant says ‘Frankenstein’ predicted a crucial part of the surgery
Neurosurgeons claims that if successful, surgey could help people cheat death
By Erin Brodwin
To Sergio Canavero, “Frankenstein” is scientific inspiration.
The Italian neurosurgeon told Business Insider that Mary Shelley’s classic novel convinced him that he could complete the world’s first full-body transplant. Canavero claims he’ll complete the procedure on a human next fall in China.
Not only did the book reveal a missing piece in his plan to swap the heads of two humans, Canavero said, it also provided the justification for the dangerous procedure.
Just as the fictional Doctor Victor Frankenstein discovered how to give life to inanimate matter, Canavero aims to cheat death. The surgeon envisions a future in which healthy people could opt for full-body transplants as a way to live longer, eventually even putting their heads on clone bodies.
“I’m into life extension,” he told Business Insider on a recent Skype call. “Life extension and breaching the wall between life and death.”
In fact, Canavero said that in doing the procedure he wants to “create a near death experience — actually a full death experience — and see what comes next.”
As Canavero explained it, the full-body transplant will involve going into the spinal cord of someone with a spinal injury and cutting out the injured segments of the cord. The donor’s cord would be cut to perfectly replace the missing portion in the injured person, and then the two healthy stumps would be fused together. Canavero plans to attach the cords using polyethylene glycol (PEG), a common laboratory tool used to encourage cells to fuse. Canavero simply refers to it as “glue.”
He said he will soon complete this transplant procedure with two humans — a Chinese national who remains anonymous and a brain-dead organ donor. The head of the former will be attached to the body of the latter.
The full procedure is called HEAVEN, short for head anastomosis venture.
Canavero said that he’d been studying the concept of this full-body transplant for more than a decade before he picked up Shelley’s book. After reading it, he said he realised his planned procedure lacked a critical component: electricity.
The surgeon has not elaborated on the role electricity will play in the operation, however James FitzGerald, a consulting neurosurgeon at the University of Oxford, told Business Insider that PEG is can be paired with “large pulses of electricity” to coax fibers into merging. Still, FitzGerald maintains that Canavero’s plans to use it to fuse two spinal cords are unrealistic.
“It’s just too much of a jump,” FitzGerald said.
Canavero doesn’t think so.
“Electricity has the power to speed up regrowth,” he said. “Bing bang bong you have the solution” to spinal cord fusion.
Canavero isn’t pursuing this unprecedented medical feat to cure people with life-threatening injuries, despite the fact that spinal cord injuries affect 12,000 Americans every year. Instead, he wants the operation to serve as a way to explore his own ideas about life, death, and human consciousness (though he says “it would be a waste” not to help injured patients as well).
“I’m not religious but I don’t believe consciousness can be created in the brain. The brain is a filter,” he said, adding that the word anastomosis combines the Greek roots “ana,” meaning to place upon, and “stoma,” or mouth.
“Like a kiss,” he said.
Canavero’s evidence that the procedure will work rests on a handful of animal experiments that many experts say were nowhere near satisfactory.
In the first of these experiments, Canavero claimed to have severed then reconnected the spinal cord of a dog. Less than a year later, he published a paper detailing how he created a series of two-headed rodents. In June 2017, the surgeon said he severed the spinal cords of a group of mice and then reattached them using polyethylene glycol.
Canavero says these trials are proof that he and his team figured out what’s often considered the holy grail of spinal cord research: fusion.
“We have so much data that confirms this in mice, rats, and soon you will see the dogs,” he said.
However, many experts don’t buy his claims, citing a lack of evidence. And it’s important to keep in mind that the fate of the Chinese man who will be involved in the first procedure hangs in the balance.
“I simply don’t think the reports of joining spinal cords together are credible,” James FitzGerald, a consulting neurosurgeon at the University of Oxford, told Business Insider.
Robert Brownstone, a professor of neurosurgery and the Brain Research Trust Chair of Neurosurgery at the University College London, agreed.
“Many great scientific ideas are born out of crazy ideas that turned out to be right so we can’t completely turn a blind eye to this, but there has to be some mechanistic aspect to it, which I’m not seeing,” Brownstone said.
Others, including University of Cambridge neurosurgery professor John Pickard, suggested the journal in which Canavero’s studies were published was also a red flag.
“I just don’t think he’s done the science,” Pickard said.