Weird Medicine

Chinese Plan Head Transplant For Paralyzed Patients, But Will Ethical Concerns Put It On Hold?

While most researchers are looking to spine reconstructions and robotics to help paralysis patients, doctors in China are considering other more extreme options: a full body transplant. The proposed operation is as drastic as it sounds and involves removing the head of a paralyzed victim and transferring it to the body of a cadaver. However, despite the macabre nature of the procedure, is there really much the public, or medical leaders across the globe, can do to stop it from becoming a reality?

The impressive project is being headed by Dr. Ren Xiaoping, an orthopedic surgeon from Harbin Medical University in China, and one of the surgeons involved with the first U.S. hand transplant in 1999, The New York Times reported. Although still in the hypothetical stages, Ren’s body-transplant (or head transplant, depending on how you look at it) would involve removing two heads from two bodies and connecting the blood vessels of the body from the deceased “donor” to the living recipient’s head. Once this is done, the neck will be bathed in a substance to help aid in regrowth of the spinal cord endings.

wheelchair Chinese doctors want to give paralyzed patients a whole new body. Pixabay, Public Domain

Although Ren may be the most qualified for the first-of-its kind operation due to his impressive background in transplantations, he is not the first surgeon to contemplate the operation. The Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, has been quite vocal about his dream of completing a successful head transplant. His plans are similar to Rens: fusing the spinal cords of a recipient's head and a donor's body with a special chemical called polyethylene glycol to coax the two to become one, The Guardian reported. Canavero also proposes keeping the patient in a coma for around four weeks to prevent further damage during the recovery period and predicts that after about a year of rehabilitation patients will be able to speak, walk, and move all on their own.

Theoretically, the project is medically possible, but if you feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of transplanting someone's head onto a dead body, you’re not alone. So far, the procedure has only been conducted on lab mice, and unfortunately they didn't fare so well. Heads from living mice were transplanted onto bodies of cadavers, and although the mice survived the initial trauma, they unfortunately did not live long after the transplant, Time reported.

Although the public and medical community may vehemently oppose conducting this procedure on a human, is there really anything that can be done to stop it? Probably not. Chinese doctors are known to push ethical boundaries, and just recently caused an uproar when they edited the genes of human embryos. Although they altered the genes with the hopes of correcting a rare blood disorder, and the embryos were not viable, meaning they could never have developed into full-grown fetuses, some believe the experiment crossed ethical lines because it could also be used to permanently modify qualities for looks or intelligence in the human genome, The NY Times reported.

In the past, China has also been criticized for using the organs of executed prisoners for transplants, and to this day continues to experiment on the organs of deceased prisoners despite international criticism. Zhai Xiaomei, a member of the country’s National Medical Ethical Committee and a professor at Peking Union Medical College, told The New York Times that although Chinese scientists may adhere to globally accepted ethical and scientific norms, some oppose them, citing “cultural differences” as the reason.

However, Ren defends the operation, claiming it would drastically change the lives of those living with paralysis.

“Whether it’s ethical or not, this is a person’s life,” said Ren. “There is nothing higher than a life, and that’s the core of ethics.”

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