Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Unscientific Fiction?

Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images - Dr. Sergio Canavero

"It wasn't that I just woke up one day and said, 'I want to do a head transplant'."
"The cloning I refer to, to become available some time in the 21st Century, is an accelerated cloning, whereby you clone yourself up to age 20 in one year, without awakening the clone. So, when you harvest the body, she will have never lived, and it probably would not be murder."
"[None of us should have to accept death as a] natural outcome. In the beginning, it will be like saving people like Einstein -- intellectually, high-ranking guys who really can give us more. I mean, Stephen Hawking?"
"Everybody in Britain said, 'what about Stephen Hawking? Would you save him?' I said, 'why not?' But this is not for me to decide. It's for you, for society."
"I'm just a man. I'm a technician. What to do with this, that's up to you."
Italian surgeon Sergo Canavero, 52, aspiring head-transplant pioneer

"The hardest part of a human head transplant is re-connecting the spinal cord. And so you really need a solution that would fix that. So I think this will make it work. I think this is the linchpin, the last piece of the puzzle. Sergio has solved most of the pieces of the puzzle."
"I'm actually a little concerned about the [head transplant]. I'm a chemist; I'm not a biologist or a surgeon. I get my information from Sergio. But from other surgeons I've talked to, they seem relatively skeptical it will work at all."
"The risk is [Valery Spiridonov, the first human volunteer] could die. That's a pretty obvious risk. But I think if anything, my material [graphene 'nanoribbons'] mitigates that risk."
William Sikema, 24, chemist, Rice University, Houston, Texas

Dr. Sikkema's substance, in which he holds great confidence, holds out great promise to enable surgeons with its use, to help knit together severed spinal cords. Researchers severed the spinal cords at Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea,  of five female rats, swabbing the stumps with Dr. Sikkema's solution comprised of graphene nanoribbons and a common polymer. One of the rats survived to walk without losing balance, stand on its hind limbs and use its paws to feed itself.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who is head of the division of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, commenting on Dr. Canavero's plan to exchange one head for another on the body of a cadaver, speaks of it as scientifically "rotten", ethically "lousy". Pointing out that never before have surgeons been able to rewire a human spinal cord, asking none too politely: "What's his rehab plan? You can't just put a head on somebody and say, ''Oh, look! It stayed on! We're out of here'."

What would Dr. Canavero do, how might he react, if his first [and presumably only[ volunteer ends up being dreadfully mentally disabled, left in a body that will not react. "Are you going to kill the patient? Are you going to overdose him?", he asks rhetorically. And the question cannot be avoided though no one knows the answer. Is the "self" located in the head, the brain, or in the flesh and blood?

Would Spiridonov as the first-ever experimental subject for a head transplant be receiving a new body, or conversely would the body be getting a new head?

Philosopher Qussim Cassam wrote: "The person with Spiridonov's head and someone else's body would be mentally continuous with Spiridonov, and so would be him". Dr. Canavero is himself convinced that his "chimera" would represent the mind of the recipient. Pointedly, with the gonads representing the body donor, should reproduction ever take place, resulting offspring would reflect the genetic inheritance of the body.

Dr. Canavero believes his "fusogen", a glue-like material to be used for reconnection of the severed spinal cord stumps and to influence growth of the axons and neurons will result in success with 31-year-old Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov, who wants to escape his devastated body beset with a muscle-wasting disease that has destroyed his body's most basic integrity. Once severed, surgeons will have an hour, no more, to re-establish blood supply to the head before irreversible brain damage would set in.

"Nobody has been able to repair a spinal cord that's been fully transected -- cut clean through", Dr. Atul Humar, medical director of the multi-organ transplant program at the University Health Network in Toronto, stated. It is where Canada's first hand transplant was performed a year ago. But as far as Dr. Canavero is concerned, his key to success is an immediate, sharp severance of the cords to result in minimum damage to the axons in the white mater, and neurons in the grey, whereas the typical spinal cord injury is the result of a brutal separation. 

Dr. Canavero is confident that his exacting plan will work. It is one he has been working to achieve for 35 years. He envisions the success of the head transplant will affect the science of cloning. Humans will one day be enabled to grow their own clones from their own DNA, to transfer aging brains to a newly manifested body of their very own; like some snakes able to shed their skins as they grow larger, humans, he envisions, will cast off their old, withered bodies and resume life in young, new bodies.

His enthusiastic plans and his confidence fails to impress his professional peers by a wide margin. As far as the ethics of using a 'volunteer' who feels he has nothing to lose from his discarding of a failed body, with hopes that the seemingly-reckless surgical try-out of a technique and a purpose never before completely envisaged, some of the criticism could conceivably be tamped down, if Dr. Canavero decided to proceed, with himself as the first volunteer.

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