At annual meeting Dr Sergio Canavero
looks to recruit surgeons to help him perform the procedure. ‘Today I’m here to
give us all a vision’
On Friday afternoon at the Westin
Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, with the volunteer for the first human head
transplant by his side, Dr Sergio Canavero made a bid to recruit surgeons
willing to help him perform the procedure from an audience of fellow doctors at
the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic
About a quarter of the seating was
given over to video cameras, tripods and lights stands. In order to get the
press-friendly doctor to the front of the room, one of the attendees had to
take the podium microphone and bellow into the scrum surrounding Canavero:
“‘Scuse me, press, I would like for you to back off, please. Enough is enough.”
The topic of Canavero’s keynote was a
procedure he hopes to perform in the next 24 months, which he calls HEad
Anatomosis VENture, or “Heaven”.
“Today I’m here to give us all a
vision,” Canavero said.
The physician added that there was no
such thing as the self, and that the final goal of his project was life
For two and a half hours (the
presentation was scheduled for 90 minutes) in front of an audience of mostly
blue- and gray-suited middle-aged surgeons, Canavero paced the width of the
long room in cream slacks and a reddish-brown tunic, bespectacled, his head shaved,
looking like an especially hip monk.
He spent most of the first half-hour
firing off aphorism after aphorism, some by writers including Kierkegaard and
Arthur C Clarke, others of his own devising.
“If Heaven is reckless, nature is
crazier, and nature must be given pause when it comes to what it does to us all
as creatures on this planet,”he said.
The neurosurgeon, of Italy’s Turin
Advanced Neuromodulation Group, veered between trying to inspire his listeners,
digging deep into neurobiology and goading the white-haired medical
professionals assembled in front of him. At one point he compared the
procedure’s future success to the moon landing, with an image of JFK on the
screen behind him.
“We must go to the moon to test who
we are, to test our skills, to test our confidence, to see what kind of men we
are!” he said.
“We must do it to test America! We
must do it to see if you are still Americans! When I grew up America was the
Promising high pay and backing from
“American billionaires”, Canavero told the assembly: “I came to you; I gladly
accepted this invite to humbly come before you to make a case that this is
He has said he plans to perform the
procedure either in the US or China.
Humility was not a quality the
audience seemed to sense in Canavero.
“You of all people have a definite
sense of self, not an illusion,” said the first doctor to pose a question in
the Q&A session. “What self is the patient? The new body, or the self that
he suffers with?”
“Ask him yourself,” Canavero replied.
Valery Spiridonov, the man who has
volunteered to undergo the procedure, spoke little at the gathering, but he was
figure of great interest. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, or spinal
muscular atrophy. It’s a debilitating, eventually fatal condition that had
taken a visible toll on the 30-year-old Russian’s body. Spiridonov emailed
Canavero out of the blue when the doctor’s project began to receive press
Valery Spiridonov: ‘I believe my body is just mechanics that I want to have removed’ Photograph: Corbis
Spiridonov answered the question.
“I believe my body is just mechanics
that I want to have removed,” he said. He spoke of having to hire people to
help him from his position in a small wheelchair next to the stage.
Other doctors, said Canavero, have
questioned whether or not the high rejection rate of radical organ and limb
transplants might mean that a full-body transplant patient might go out of his
mind. Canavero told them to imagine themselves in Spiridonov’s place.
“Would you believe that your
condition could drive you to insanity, to madness?” he asked Spiridonov.
“Yes,” Spiridonov replied. “Every
What about the anterior spinal
The other question, of course, is
whether or not the operation is possible. Canavero pointed to head transplants
in mice successfully performed in China, and said that polyethylene glycol
(PEG) – which is often used as a laxative, but has been found to have
applications for spinal injury patients – could essentially glue the motor
centers of the spinal cord back together successfully after they had been severed.
One doctor interrupted Canavero in
the middle of his lecture to point out that, as a vascular surgeon, he was
concerned about, among others, the anterior spinal artery.
“You’re gonna cut right through
that,” he said. Canavero invited him to join his working group, saying he had
done his part and now it was time for them to step up.
The doctors were divided on whether
or not to perform the procedure at all. Is a head transplant ethical?
“I don’t know,” said Oscar Tuazon, a
surgeon based in nearby Alexandria. “In humans, the main thing is the head! The
body is just a framework or a shell. So it’s the head that’s important. Maybe,
let’s say, if somebody is great, like Einstein, maybe you can preserve him.”
Tuazon attended the conference with
Edith Tuazon, a nurse and his wife of 44 years. She was unconvinced.
“I do feel like it goes far,” she
said. “Suppose you have a head transplant of someone who’s an artist and on to
someone who’s not an artist –will that person be able to make the arms and the
hands still draw? Will the hand still ‘think?’ Will it think like it did
before? How are all those functions going to work together?”
Canavero had his answer to that one
in the presentation: “You cut the spaghetto, you apply PEG, and boom.”