It may sound like something out a science fiction movie, but allogenic head and body reconstruction research is moving full speed ahead at Harbin Medical University in China. Interestingly, it isn’t the physiological challenges of joining one animal’s head to another’s body that is new. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. White was pioneering work that dealt specifically with the anatomical complications of such a transplant. Where he failed was in immunotherapy. His animal bodies ultimately rejected the new head, initiating a microscopic battle on the foreign tissue.
We have come a long way since then. The first successful hand transplant was conducted more than a decade ago. Livers, kidneys and other organs are routinely transplanted as well. Though we have not completely solved the immunotherapy issue, we have made great progress. Enough progress that Dr. Xiaoping Ren wants to revisit the head transplant idea.
His 2015 study, Head Transplant in Mouse Model, is only the first step. In this study he used mice as his guinea pigs, so to speak, in an effort to develop a model where their brains would survive the procedure. Specifically, he wanted to avoid brain ischemia, in which blood flow to the brain becomes too low to maintain the organ’s oxygen supply. Brain ischemia results in the death of brain tissue, which would render any head transplant unsuccessful.
The trial was a success. By linking the head to be transplanted to the recipient body and allowing blood to flow between them, the researchers were able to keep the brain well-oxygenated throughout the procedure. This research is far from human trials, though maverick surgeon Sergio Canavero is intent upon carrying out the first human head transplant in the near future. This would be utterly absurd, if Dr. Ren hadn’t agreed to help. As the foremost surgeon in this department, having now performed the procedure on thousands of animals, the two men might have a shot. Still, you wouldn’t find me volunteering for the procedure any time soon.