The first human body transplant

(source: creative commons)

To what lengths should we go to preserve human life? This is a question many are asking after hearing that three men plan to make medical history by conducting the first human head transplant. Or, rather, whole body transplant. Italian neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero and Chinese surgeon Dr. Xiaoping Ren plan to provide a Russian volunteer, Valery Spiridonov, a new body. During the procedure, Spiridonov’s body and head would be detached and, with the help of a crane, surgeons would move the head and attach it to the donor body. But is this ethical? Should they proceed?

Critics call the plan crazy, unethical, and sure to fail. The likelihood of success is very low and the risk of Spiridinov dying are too high. Spiridonov says that as soon as animal studies confirm the possibility of survival, the risks will be worth taking. He has Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, a genetic disorder that leads to the destruction of muscle and nerve cells. He is confined to a wheelchair and has lived longer than expected. Body transplantation offers him the best chance at a life worth living.

Drs. Canaverneo and Ren say that their animal research success puts them close to the first human attempt. Looming over this assertion are questions about what the animal studies show and what they mean by ‘success.’ To date, most of their research on rodents, dogs, and primates has not been published in scientific journals, generating skepticism about the validity of their claims.

The two doctors speak of Spiridonov as the transplant recipient and the person who, if all goes well, survives the surgery. As with the ship of Theseus, how many parts may we replace and justifiably think that the person’s original identity survives? Body transplantation forces us to think about what makes us who we are, how the mind and body are related, and whether and how we maintain our personal identity over time. In receiving a new body, Spiridonov’s mind, rather than the body donor’s mind, will be preserved. But the identity of the new body-head combination is more complicated. Transplants require immunosuppression therapy to prevent rejection of foreign tissue. Will Spiridonov’s head’s immune system be suppressed to prevent rejection of the body? Or will the goal be to prevent the body from rejecting the head? If the “new Spiridonov” has children, whose children are they biologically? The sperm the “new Spiridonov” will produce will carry the body donor’s DNA.

Even if the surgery goes as planned and the new head-body combination lives, will the costs be justified? Not only will the surgery be very expensive, but several lives could be saved if the donor’s body were used for routine organ transplants instead. How high-performing would the “new Spiridonov” have to be and how long would he have to live to call it a success and to say it was worth the costs? The answer likely depends on whom you ask.

This post was authored by Ana S. Iltis, Ph.D., Baker Institute scholar, Director of the Center for Bioethics, Health and Society and Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University.