An Italian neurosurgeon has moved closer to his goal of transplanting a human head, revealing a virtual reality system that will “prepare patients for life in a new body”.
Professor Sergio Canavero wants to carry out the operation for the first time next year, saying it could help those paralysed from the neck down to walk again.
Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian computer programmer, suffering from a form of spinal muscular atrophy called Werdnig-Hoffmann, has volunteered to undergo surgery.
But putting someone’s head onto someone else’s body could lead to “unexpected psychological reactions” so US firm Inventum Bioengineering Technologies has created a virtual reality world that it says will help train patients such as Mr Spiridonov.
Inventum chief executive Alexander Pavlovich said the virtual reality system would be used before the surgery to prevent these unexpected reactions.
He added: “We are combining the latest advancements in virtual reality to develop the world’s first protocol for preparing the patient for bodily freedom after the transplantation procedure.”
When Professor Canaveral revealed the system during a conference at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow on Friday, he described it as “prepared(ing) the patient in the best possible way for a new world that he will be facing with his new body. The world in which he will be able to walk again”.
Mr Spiridonov said it was “vital” in helping patients “get involved into action and (to) learn fast and efficiently” turning human head transplant into a success.
Professor Cannavaro also displayed the knife that will be used for the human head transplant – a custom-made blade that can control cuts to a micrometre (one millionth of a metre) to allow the precision required to cut the spinal cord.
He said that the knife, developed by an American professor, will allow a “clear cut of the spinal cord with a minimal impact on the nerves”.
“Asia is moving, so expect more news is coming out over the next few months” and “the UK is very well poised to do this”.
He showed little concern for the views of his critics, some of whom have described his work as Frankenstein surgery and declared human head transplant a fancy.
He said: “To all the critics I say go and see what happens when you’re affected by a wasting disorder…trade places with (Mr Spiridonov), and then you tell me.
“That’s my counter criticism for the critics.”
In a final experiment, the South Korean team tested the PEG solution in a dog after it’s spinal cord was almost entirely severed. They claim 90 per cent of the cord had been severed.
While the dog was initially paralysed, three days later the team report it was able to move its limbs. By three weeks it could walk and wag its tail. There was no control in the experiments.
Earlier experiments were conducted on several animals like mice and monkeys.
Writing in the journal Surgical Neurology International, Dr Canavero said the results of the tests should dispel the hysteria around full head transplants ‘once and for all’.
He said: ‘While of course, these results are in need of duplication, there can be no doubt that this new batch of data confirms that a spinal cord, once severed, can be refused with useful behavioural recovery. Will human head transplant be a success story?
‘Despite these exciting animal experiments, the proof of the pudding rests in human studies.’