By James Burke
Human head transplants are about to be performed in China—but where are the bodies coming from?
An Italian surgeon has said that a head transplant will soon be carried out on a living person in China, adding to concerns about such procedures being attempted in a country already known for killing prisoners of conscience for their bodily organs.
Speaking at a press conference in Vienna, Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero said his collaborator in China, Xiaoping Ren of the Harbin Medical University, had successfully led a surgical team to conduct an 18-hour-long “rehearsal” head transplant using cadavers.
“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done. A full head swap between brain-dead organ donors is the next stage,” said Canavero on November 11, reported The Telegraph.
“And that is the final step for the formal head transplant for a medical condition which is imminent,” he said.
“The first human head transplant, in the human mode, has been realized. The paper will be released in a few days. Everyone said it was impossible. But the surgery was successful,” he added.
The controversial surgeon and his goals have met a barrage of criticism from his peers.
Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and psychiatry lecturer at the Center for Medical Education at Cardiff University, said what Canavero wants to do is impossible.
“To be able to say you can just stick someone else’s head on someone else’s body is not really feasible based on current medical understanding,” said Burnett, reported National Post. “I’d be very keen to hear his explanation about how we’ve got around these issues,” he said.
Professor Jan Schnupp, from the University of Oxford, described the proposals as “disturbing.”
“The chances that a person who has their head transplanted onto another body will be able to gain any control over, or benefit from, that grafted body are completely negligible,” Schnupp told the Sun.
“The expected therapeutic value for the patient would be minimal, while the risks of graft rejection related side effects, or simply death as a consequence of a mishap during the operation, are huge.”
Canavero has said the upcoming procedure, which he gave a 90 percent chance in succeeding, is being done in China because it would not be permitted in the U.S. or Europe. Among his critics have been those who has focused on his choice of doing the procedure in China.
Consent and organ donation in China are murky ethical issues.
Karen S. Rommelfanger, a neuroethicist at Emory University School of Medicine, and Paul F. Boshears, a scholar of East Asian and comparative philosophy at Kennesaw State University, wrote that whether or not human head transplant is possible is irrelevant.
The fact is such technology is being developed and is being done in China, wrote Rommelfanger and Boshears for Newsweek.
“Where are they going to get the bodies for the head transplant procedures?” they asked.
“The Chinese research team taking up Canavero’s human head transplants could use bodies or heads from individuals who have not consented to participate,” they wrote.
The reports on the human head transplant come as China’s transplant industry has been dogged by reports over the past decade that claim it is supplied with organs harvested from prisoners of conscience who are killed in the process.
“These prisoners in China are being held in camps, are having all their vital statistics taken — blood types and so on — and then executed on demand when a suitable recipient makes a booking for surgery to receive a kidney or heart, liver, or other organ,” said Paul Macneill, an honorary professor from the Centre for Values Ethics & the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, earlier this year.
“This is so obviously wrong; it hardly needs to be said,” he said.
An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 transplants are performed each year in China, according to the findings of an alarming report released last year.
The report Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update, said the main targets for organ harvesting are practitioners of Falun Gong. To a lesser extent, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and select House Christians have also been killed in order to obtain organs for transplants, the report said.