On Friday afternoon at the Westin Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, with the volunteer for the first human head transplant by his side, Dr Sergio Canavero made a bid to recruit surgeons willing to help him perform the procedure from an audience of fellow doctors at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons.
About a quarter of the seating was given over to video cameras, tripods and lights stands. In order to get the press-friendly doctor to the front of the room, one of the attendees had to take the podium microphone and bellow into the scrum surrounding Canavero: “‘Scuse me, press, I would like for you to back off, please. Enough is enough.”
The topic of Canavero’s keynote was a procedure he hopes to perform in the next 24 months, which he calls HEad Anatomosis VENture, or “Heaven”.
“Today I’m here to give us all a vision,” Canavero said.
The physician added that there was no such thing as the self, and that the final goal of his project was life extension.
For two and a half hours (the presentation was scheduled for 90 minutes) in front of an audience of mostly blue- and gray-suited middle-aged surgeons, Canavero paced the width of the long room in cream slacks and a reddish-brown tunic, bespectacled, his head shaved, looking like an especially hip monk.
He spent most of the first half-hour firing off aphorism after aphorism, some by writers including Kierkegaard and Arthur C Clarke, others of his own devising.
“If Heaven is reckless, nature is crazier, and nature must be given pause when it comes to what it does to us all as creatures on this planet,”he said.
The neurosurgeon, of Italy’s Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, veered between trying to inspire his listeners, digging deep into neurobiology and goading the white-haired medical professionals assembled in front of him. At one point he compared the procedure’s future success to the moon landing, with an image of JFK on the screen behind him.
“We must go to the moon to test who we are, to test our skills, to test our confidence, to see what kind of men we are!” he said.
“We must do it to test America! We must do it to see if you are still Americans! When I grew up America was the top.”
Promising high pay and backing from “American billionaires”, Canavero told the assembly: “I came to you; I gladly accepted this invite to humbly come before you to make a case that this is possible.”
He has said he plans to perform the procedure either in the US or China.
Humility was not a quality the audience seemed to sense in Canavero.
“You of all people have a definite sense of self, not an illusion,” said the first doctor to pose a question in the Q&A session. “What self is the patient? The new body, or the self that he suffers with?”
“Ask him yourself,” Canavero replied.
Valery Spiridonov, the man who has volunteered to undergo the procedure, spoke little at the gathering, but he was figure of great interest. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, or spinal muscular atrophy. It’s a debilitating, eventually fatal condition that had taken a visible toll on the 30-year-old Russian’s body. Spiridonov emailed Canavero out of the blue when the doctor’s project began to receive press attention.
Spiridonov answered the question.
“I believe my body is just mechanics that I want to have removed,” he said. He spoke of having to hire people to help him from his position in a small wheelchair next to the stage.
Other doctors, said Canavero, have questioned whether or not the high rejection rate of radical organ and limb transplants might mean that a full-body transplant patient might go out of his mind. Canavero told them to imagine themselves in Spiridonov’s place.
“Would you believe that your condition could drive you to insanity, to madness?” he asked Spiridonov.
“Yes,” Spiridonov replied. “Every day.”
What about the anterior spinal artery?
The other question, of course, is whether or not the operation is possible. Canavero pointed to head transplants in mice successfully performed in China, and said that polyethylene glycol (PEG) – which is often used as a laxative, but has been found to have applications for spinal injury patients – could essentially glue the motor centers of the spinal cord back together successfully after they had been severed.
One doctor interrupted Canavero in the middle of his lecture to point out that, as a vascular surgeon, he was concerned about, among others, the anterior spinal artery.
“You’re gonna cut right through that,” he said. Canavero invited him to join his working group, saying he had done his part and now it was time for them to step up.
The doctors were divided on whether or not to perform the procedure at all. Is a head transplant ethical?
“I don’t know,” said Oscar Tuazon, a surgeon based in nearby Alexandria. “In humans, the main thing is the head! The body is just a framework or a shell. So it’s the head that’s important. Maybe, let’s say, if somebody is great, like Einstein, maybe you can preserve him.”
Tuazon attended the conference with Edith Tuazon, a nurse and his wife of 44 years. She was unconvinced.
“I do feel like it goes far,” she said. “Suppose you have a head transplant of someone who’s an artist and on to someone who’s not an artist –will that person be able to make the arms and the hands still draw? Will the hand still ‘think?’ Will it think like it did before? How are all those functions going to work together?”
Canavero had his answer to that one in the presentation: “You cut the spaghetto, you apply PEG, and boom.”
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