Organ transplant started simply based on the Idea that the donor don’t need that organ any more or can survive without it
In 1954 the 1st kidney transplant was done then it moved on by time to any organ that one can survive without like parts (lobe) from the liver, then it moved on to essential for life organs of a donor that died like the heart and lungs and full liver
The procedure always faced ethical and medical issues, ethically the door was open for selling organs or even stealing organs form unaware victims and beside that it was religiously refused, but with time people started accepting the idea and mostly considered and ethically accepted procedure
Medically there was always the challenge of compatibility, so either the donor is related to the patient so it minimize the organ rejection and reduce the amount and dose of immune suppressant needed, and if not the patient will always depend on strong immune suppressant therapy
Then came Dr. Sergio Canavero director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group and took things to another level with the “HEAVEN” project, and decided to transplant a human head
“HEAVEN” project (Head Anastomosis Venture) was discussed in 2013 and 2015 then near the end of 2016 Dr. Canavero shock the world with this news
After this announcement the scientific society started taking teams either totally against and accusing Dr. Canavero of being deluded and mad, or supporting the idea and say theoretically possible but even them can’t support the doctor and his team one 100%
But what accelerated the process even more that the project has a volunteer patient willing to be the 1st human to have this procedure
Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian computer programmer suffering from a form of spinal muscular atrophy called Werdnig-Hoffmann
Though his girlfriend is opposing the surgery, he wants to go through as he thinks it’s not important just for him but for the humanity
What are the challenges and how to overcome:
Let’s start with the big question, how will they be able to sustain life of the severed head?
Well research show that humans can survive without blood flow if the body is cooled to a temperature between 12 C and 15 C at which the metabolic activity of the cerebral region declines to about 10%, and from the data gathered from cardiac surgeries that profound hypothermia causes total cessation of the blood flow
This temperature and these conditions can be safely sustained to about 45 minutes, which is enough to reconnect the spinal cord according to Dr. Canavero
So that’s about sustaining life what about the neural cell damage of the spinal cord
At 1st Dr. Canavero say that he will minimize the damage to cells while cutting, as he plans to use tools that will create the force of less than 10 N during transections
A knife that can control cuts to a micrometer (one millionth of a meter) has been developed by Farid Amirouche at the University of Illinois.
And what about the regeneration? In order for the patient to gain control and the pinal cord to be effective reconnecting isn’t enough the regeneration needs to be fast
There are 2 parts to this issue the 1st is to decrease the scar area which is discussed in the previous point, the 2nd is move the regeneration process faster, which can be achieved by using a compound solution of polyethylene glycol (PEG), that is known to be effective in treating spinal cord injuries and helping the patient to regain the motor functionality faster
Also Dr. Canavero plans to apply electrical stimulation at the joint area of the scar to speed up the axons regeneration and trigger voluntary movements
The psychological challenges of obtaining new body was new prospect to think about, as the patient (and this volunteer particulary) is not walking and most of his motor activities are limited
So to help getting ready for the new change, a virtual reality program was designed especially for this case so the patient will be ready after few sessions, and when he wakes up after the medically induced coma after the surgery he will be ready to accept and deal with the hopefully successful procedure
At the end there is of course the issue of any organ post-transplant complication
This will be solved mainly by giving the patient heavy immune suppressants, and the blood flow will be monitored by Color flow Doppler (CFD) ultrasonography
The experiments supporting the Idea:
In 1970 a team of US scientists attached the head of a monkey to another’s body, but they didn’t connect the spinal cord so the monkey was paralyzed and couldn’t breathe without assistance and died 9 days later
Recently a team of scientists in China done the same experiment with similar results, and on mice showing 30-50% survival rate
Also in Seoul, South Korea a team of scientists lead by Dr.C-Yoon Kim severed the heads 16 mice and transplanted with reconnection of spinal cords
The difference this time that they injected a chemical called polyethylene glycol (PEG) into the gap between the cut spinal cord in half of the mice (which is the material that will be used in the HEAVEN project).
After four weeks, five of the eight mice who received PEG regained some ability to move but three of the mice died. Those who did not receive PEG also died.
Similar tests using an enhanced version of PEG was given to five rats with severed spinal cords and the South Korean researchers showed electrical signals passed down it after treatment.
However, four of the rats were killed in a flood at the team's laboratory and so they were not able to see if movement was restored.
Another experiment later by the same team, was using the PEG solution while reconnecting the spinal cord of a dog, claims that the spinal cord was severed by 90%
The dog was initially paralyzed, but after 3 days it started moving its limbs, then by three weeks was waging its tail
Scientists opposing the project
Any normal new procedure in any field has supporters and opponents, so you can imagine what happened in the scientific community when the HEAVEN project was announced
The most optimistic opponents said the technology for this project won’t be available before eight years from now, others say it’s a complete madness
One of the main issues that it hasn’t been tested on animals, as the data from the South Korean team is not complete and there was no control in it, so that data shouldn’t be reliable and animal testing should be done more before taking it to the human level
Also some scientists say not just animals it has to be more intelligent animals like monkeys and apes which are closer to our anatomy and nervous system
Regarding the PEG effect in healing complete severed head it hasn’t been tested properly, as the case of the dog in the South Korean experiment wasn’t documented properly and there is no proof that the spinal injury was nearly 90%, so the PEG isn’t more than a supporting factor in the healing process of spinal injuries
And the main idea of the project is reconnecting the motor fibers (not all of it) and didn’t mention anything about the sensory and the autonomic system
Then there is the immunological rejection, as they think no amount of immunosuppressant would be enough to control the immune system reaction to the new head
At the end most of these scientists are happy that this procedure mostly won’t get ethical approval, and that it harder even to get 150 medical professional to join what it’s now called (the Frankenstein Adventure)