Canavero and Spiridonov meet at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons to discuss a possible head transplant. Canavero says that his contribution would solely be dealing with the spinal cord, and that reattaching Spiridonov’s spine would require building a nano-blade with the ability to cut through nerve fibers without hurting them. He would also cut a bit lower than needed on Spiridonov’s spinal cord and a bit higher on the transplant body before giving them a last-minute second cut, which he said would help minimize cells dying off from the severed ends. Polyethylene glycol is then used to join the ends together, adding electrical stimulation to encourage attachment.
Spiridonov, who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman muscle wasting disease, announces that he will be Canavero’s first head transplant patient, possibly in 2016. He says he has talked with Canavero through Skype. The cost of the 36-hour operation, which can only be performed in the one of the world’s most advanced operating theaters, has been estimated at $10 million. He says he wants the chance of a new body before he dies.
My decision is final and I do not plan to change my mind…Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am. But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting. But you have to understand that I don’t really have many choices. If I don’t try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse. I can hardly control my body now. I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease. My muscles stopped any development in childhood. Because of this, they do not grow and the skeleton gets deformed. The back muscles cannot support the skeleton. I do understand the risks of such surgery. They are multiple. We can’t even imagine what exactly can go wrong. I’m afraid that I wouldn’t live long enough to see it happen to someone else.
Canavero says the first full-body transplant could take place within two years. He plans to announce the project at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland, in June.
The procedure involves cooling the recipient’s head and the donor body to extend the time their cells can survive without oxygen. The tissue around the neck is dissected and the major blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes, before the spinal cords of each person are cut. The recipient’s head is then moved onto the donor body and the two ends of the spinal cord – which resemble two densely packed bundles of spaghetti – are fused together. To achieve this, Canavero intends to flush the area with a chemical called polyethylene glycol, which encourages the fat in cell membranes to mesh. The muscles and blood supply would be sutured and the recipient kept in a coma for three or four weeks to prevent movement. Implanted electrodes would provide regular electrical stimulation to the spinal cord. When the recipient wakes up, Canavero predicts they would be able to move and feel their face and would speak with the same voice. He says that physiotherapy would enable the person to walk within a year.
I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible…This is why I first spoke about the idea two years ago, to get people talking about it. If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else. I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.
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