A Chinese surgeon and a controversial Italian neurosurgeon will attempt to transplant the head of a terminally disabled Russian man onto a body that could allow him to survive.
The distant concepts of science fiction are once again becoming reality, just as they have before. I recently spoke to a consultant on the brilliant Deus Ex: Mankind Divided about how their cast of augmented characters might fare in our own immediate future. But, if anything, the cast of this futurist medical drama is even more dramatic.
One of the surgeons has a bronzed pig ear proudly displayed in his office. The other compares himself favorably to Frankenstein and Josef Mengele while he sells souvenirs of himself. Together, they will try to transplant the head of a terminal test subject onto another body. As you might expect, the reactions they’re getting are mixed.
Xiaoping Ren has been called “China’s Frankenstein,” though it’s not a moniker he’d claim for himself. His office displays a bronzed pig’s ear gifted to him by a team he helped to switch pigs’ forelegs. It was those experiments that prepared him to be a part of the first successful transplant of a human hand.
His colleague, Sergio Canavero, is the one who embraces the mad scientist references. He’s a man who The Atlantic describes as “a Mediterranean Donald Trump,” but is described by his peers as “James Bond villain insane,” with a “Human Centipede–level medical horrorshow.” This is a man who believes jujitsu has given him “the martial mind that you need to tackle all the morons that come with idiotic questions.” He’s supplemented his bold venture into neurological experimentation with a seduction guidebook called Women Discovered and souvenirs of himself. Yes, really.
Valery Spiridonov has put the brief remainder of his life into the hands of these men, in hopes of finding egress from his withering body. Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease is eating away his muscles and motor neurons, but he’s survived far longer than his own doctors would have predicted. Now he’s hoping to leave that body behind entirely, as the first human to trade away everything from the neck down.
Critics are calling the procedure an “elaborate act of slow torture and murder.” They assert that both Ren and Canavero should be tried for murder if the operation fails. But Canavero isn’t particularly concerned about failure. He claims that they have a 90-plus percent chance of success. He’s already managed the procedure on a monkey — though it was only kept alive for 20 hours afterward. Ren has, in turn, vaguely mentioned experiments with human cadavers in preparation.
For now, there is still much to be done. While Canavero originally predicted the transplant would take place in 2017, he’s been forced to admit that it may not actually be that close. A lot of things still need to happen, not the least of which is a country allowing them to legally perform the operation.
Ren is still intent on conducting more experiments on hundreds more mice, several large animals, and eventually brain-dead but technically living human bodies. There will be 80 surgeons involved — a bit of a jump from the 20 that prepared over the course of two years just to swap out a single hand.
If successful, all three men will be immortalized in the annals of medicine. If not, two of them will be seen as monsters, and one a victim of desperation and deception. And regardless of the outcome, this is a strange new chapter for human medicine. Should Spiridonov survive his disease long enough to make the attempt, his end could be grotesque, revolutionary, or both.
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