How to sell a head transplant to the media.
*Warning, there are graphic images in this post*
An Italian and Chinese scientist claim to have completed a "successful" head transplant in monkeys, and to have restored movement in mice who have had their spinal cords cut and fused back together. They also claim to have performed initial human head transplant experiments in cadavers, the latest step in ambitious—and, to many, scientifically dubious—plans to eventually carry out the first human head transplant.
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero, who is vocal about his plans to conduct the first human head transplant (or, more accurately, a full body transplant) by 2017 and heads up an international collaboration of researchers working towards this goal, sent a press release to Motherboard reporters on Skype Monday announcing the latest work.
"BREAKING NEWS FROM THE HEAVEN/AHBR HEAD TRANSPLANT INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATIVE EFFORT: GEMINI LEADS TO MOTOR RECOVERY, CRITICS DISPROVEN," the press release said, referring to the name of Canavero's planned techniques.
The release notes that Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University had performed a successful monkey head transplant using the technique, which Canavero says makes a very sharp incision of the spinal cord and places the patient into a state of therapeutic hypothermia to allow the body to make a recovery.
"A full monkey head transplant has been successfully accomplished by Prof Ren's group in China with the goal of testing cross-circulation and hypothermia as an effective neuroprotective strategy," the release said. "The first studies on human cadavers have already begun in China and will be expanded shortly."
The press release sent out by Canavero said seven scientific papers describing the research would be imminently published in the journals Surgery and CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics.
Chinese researcher Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University confirmed to Motherboard that he had undertaken the work with monkeys. "We already did a couple monkeys for this procedure last year," he said. Ren previously made headlines for transplanting heads on mice. Those experiments were reported on and filmed by the Wall Street Journal.
While Ren has tempered expectations that this work would lead to a successful human head transplant (he told the WSJ in July that he is "not [yet] confident to say I can do a human transplant"), Canavero has charged ahead. Canavero has promoted every potential breakthrough before it has been published in science journals, has selected (and promoted the plight of) his first patient, a Russian man with a degenerative muscle disease named Valery Spiridonov, and has called on tech CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg to finance the surgery.
While Canavero very well might eventually attempt the procedure, he has not been forthcoming with evidence of interim progress. After he sent Motherboard the press release, Canavero would not send us drafts of the papers and would not send us photos or videos of the procedure that we could publish (Canavero sent us photos of monkeys with sutures on their necks via Skype but said we could not publish them—we took a screengrab of the YouTube embed above). One of Canavero's assistants told us it would only be providing video footage to "television news stations for live interviews."
After contacting one of the journals in which the papers are supposedly set to be published, we were told that Canavero sent out the press release before the papers had been finalized, that they are currently not available, and that the press release was sent out without the knowledge of the journal.
Motherboard spoke with Michael Sarr, a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic and editor of the journal Surgery, where three of the seven papers are set to be published. Sarr said that his journal has reviewed the science on two of the three papers—one about nerve regrowth and one about brain preservation in a potentially transplanted head. He said the articles still must be edited several times before they're eventually published, perhaps as early as next month.
"Unfortunately, I think Canavero has been a little premature with sending this out," Sarr told Motherboard. "This head transplantation—even the term is sensationalism. I worry tremendously about that. We're a hard surgical science journal and we're interested in this because of what it might mean for people with traumatic spinal injuries."
Sarr said that one of the articles his journal plans to publish is about two people with spinal cord injuries who had their nerves regrow after surgical intervention to remove scar tissue.
"That's the interest our scientific journal has in this concept. The head transplant would be the proof of principle, which wouldn't be done in the US in this point," he said. "If that works, you could take people like Christopher Reeve, reoperate on them, take out one vertebra, bring the spinal cord together and you might be able to recover functionality in the muscles and sensation downstream from the transection. That would be an unbelievably huge event."
Sarr said when the articles are eventually published, he will make clear in a preface that the papers don't necessarily mean a head transplant is actually going to work.
"As an editor of a scientific journal, I don't want to be sensationalist, but I do want to point out that there may be a new approach to spinal cord paralysis due to spinal cord injuries," he said. "What we're going to do, there's going to be a preface written by myself and my co-editor, and we're going to say before you start reading this, here's why we're interested in this topic. It's not because of the head transplantation, it's because they are claiming to have found a way to regrow the nerves."
This is all to say that fantastic feats of successful monkey head transplants and future human work have been claimed, and while the proof to back it up may exist, they're being made before going through the traditional science publishing steps.
If a transplant did indeed take place, this would not be the first time monkey head transplants have been attempted. American neurosurgeon Robert White attempted a monkey head transplant in the 1970s; the monkey died after nine days.
Ren said the point of the monkey head transplant experiments was not long-term survival of the animals but to test techniques for the surgery, such as how to maintain blood circulation (which is necessary to protect the brain). Canavero explained that the monkey was euthanized shortly afterwards. "We didn't want to see the monkey suffer for more days, such as Dr. White did," said Canavero. In a Skype conversation with Spiridonov published by RIA Novosti, Canavero told his prospective patient that "the monkey survived perfectly without injury for 24… for 20 hours before being euthanized, because of course we didn't want to keep the animal alive."
"I will not show you the human images because they are too strong, but the first human decapitation [in cadavers] has already taken place in China under the leadership of Xiaoping Ren," Canavero added in his Skype call with Spiridonov.
Canavero claimed Ren's work was "to re-prove that a brain could really survive detachment and re-attachment" in the monkey model.
Until the papers are released for scrutiny, it's naturally advisable to take the claimed outcomes with a hefty grain of salt and a raised eyebrow. Canavero's project has many critics who, as well as expressing ethical concerns, question whether a head transplant is at all scientifically possible.
What Canavero's claims do show, however, is that he and his collaborators are keen to push ahead with their experiments.
Next, Ren is turning his attention to human cadavers. Canavero also showed Motherboard an image of a human head that had purportedly been severed in the same way it could be for a transplant (which he appeared unwilling to show Spiridonov).
The team additionally reported that Korean researchers had performed further work in mice in an attempt to restore motor function after the spine is sliced through and then reconnected using polyethylene glycol, or PEG, as a kind of glue. Canavero showed me videos in which mice that had purportedly had their spine detached and reconnected four weeks previously (but keeping their heads attached) were able to move around, albeit clumsily.
"We proved without a hint at doubt that what the critics said—that the spinal cord could not be reconstructed—they were wrong, we were right," Canavero said.