Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon, explains the world's most complicated surgery with a banana. At a TEDx talk in Italy earlier this month, the man who wants to perform the world's first head transplant smashes a banana in his fist. It's mush—hard to put back together. But if you chop the banana in half with a sharp knife, he explains, it's no sweat. There's not much damage.
[This is a two-part series. Here is the companion piece, an interview with Valery Spiridonov, the man set to get the surgery.]
In essence, that's what he wants to do to a man's neck. Long term, it's what he wants to do to your neck. He calls it a "Gemini" spinal cord fusion protocol, which will be used to perform a Cephalosomatic anastomosis, "the surgical transference of a healthy head on a surgically beheaded body under deep hypothermic conditions," he explained in a paper published in February.
Maybe the hardest thing for people to wrap their heads around is that Canavero sees his announced head transplantation as only the beginning. The goal isn't to save just the lives of people stricken with incurable muscle disorders. The goal is to eventually allow you to grow a clone body of yourself that you can then use to keep yourself physically young forever, by getting recurring head transplants onto donor bodies grown from your own genetic material (how you'll keep your brain—and face—young during all of this is an unanswered question).
But enough of that, for now. For the first surgery, the plan is this: Take two people (one with a living head but a disabled body, the other braindead but with a healthy body), chop their heads off at the exact same time, place the healthy head on the healthy body, glue them together with a substance called Poly-ethylene glycol, and wait.
Valery Spiridonov was born with Wednig-Hoffman disorder, a genetic degenerative muscle atrophying disease. He hasn't been able to walk since he was one-year-old. Spiridonov is the first volunteer for the transplant, and will be put into a coma for about four weeks after the surgery—the hope is that his spinal cord will naturally repair itself, and he'll be able to walk roughly a year after surgery.
Canavero estimates it'll cost $13 million and take a 150-doctor team to pull off the 36-hour surgery. But explaining how it works is surprisingly simple. Nerve cells notoriously don't grow back very fast, if at all, when they are damaged. But there have been cases, when the spinal cord has been sharply severed—by a gunshot, for instance—in which a paralyzed person regains full movement. Like the banana, a spine is easier to put back together when it's cut with a very sharp implement in a neat fashion, Canavero says.
"I am from another species of neurosurgeon"
It's a longshot, to say the least. It's been called a publicity stunt and Hunt Batjer, the president-elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons said that Spiridonov could face a fate " worse than death" because, if it goes wrong, Spiridonov would not be able to breathe naturally. Canavero has been called a mad scientist and has been compared to Doctor Frankenstein, which isn't unfair, considering he stood in front of a giant photo of Frankenstein (and the Terminator) at his TEDx talk.
That said, he is a real neurosurgeon, and this work has been attempted before, in monkeys and rats. Is it ever going to happen? No one can say for sure. But I caught up with Canavero on Skype over the weekend to learn what he has planned for all of us. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
In the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Robert White performed head transplants on monkeys that didn't go so well. What's different about yours?
What you're referring to was no Gemini procedure. Gemini was feasible at the time of Dr. White. The problem is, he was not a functional neurosurgeon. The possibility of rejoining two sharply severed cords was already out there in the 1986. So, you might ask me, "What happened in the last 30 years? Hey, if it's so cool, why didn't we do it?" Well, Dr. White was alive—he could have done it himself, and I wouldn't be here, you wouldn't be here talking to me. The problem is, he was a gentle neurosurgeon. I am from another species of neurosurgeon.
You've been called a lot of things since you announced this.
I'm writing a paper answering the ethical issues. This is the problem i find myself with—the ethics. Look, I'm very happy Valery just stepped out and made this announcement. That is my answer to the ethical problem for the treatment of horrible medical conditions. If you want to know why we do this, go to any hospital and find someone with diseases like his. You'll see what they do. You're in a wheelchair for 24 hours, when you poo, you need someone to put away the doo, when you pee, you need someone to put away the pee, I'll let you think about how it happens. Talk to anyone with these horrible conditions and you'll know why we do it.
"You will be able to get a new body. At age 60, you start cloning yourself and then, good as new"
For that, there's no ethical question. My answer to Dr. Caplan [note: Dr. Arthur Caplan wrote an op-ed slamming Canavero's plan] is he doesn't know what he's talking about. The nutty guy is him, not me. That's my answer for horrible conditions.
Who is going to pay for this?
I've got folders replete with emails of people willing to have the surgery. In Annapolis [at a conference in June where he will announce more about the procedure], I will ask Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the like to sign a check to make this happen. You can write this: I am asking Bill Gates to sponsor this surgery.
You sound confident.
The other thing is, the Russian Orthodox Christian church just barked out that if Valery receives this surgery, he will mingle his soul with the other body's soul. This is important. That's the real implication of this surgery—smashing religions. If we do this, and nothing happens in the way religions expect, they're going to have a really hard time—it means we are scientifically proving their specific view is wrong.
What can you tell me about Valery?
He's an incredible guy. Let me tell you this: He's one hell of a hero, he's one hell of a ballsy guy, he's got guts beyond imagination. He's very bright. He thought this out and came to me in June 2013, when I made my first announcement. I have a whole slew of patients who want to get the surgery. But he told me his story, and his disease is rather ordinary to anyone involved in neurology.
He's a bright, bright, bright, bright human being who is in terrible condition. Valery decided the time was right and decided to come out.
Has that made things easier on you?
In a way, perhaps. When I say this is about, first of all, about curing disorders, no one connects. No one visualizes what that means except medical professionals. But the view of people themselves being wheelchair-ridden or laid up for decades is scary. Seeing him, it's "boom." You get more bang for the buck than saying "it's for horrible conditions."
So, that's good, but he received a lot of flack. It takes a burden. You get so many stupid questions from the press, you have to stay calm.
You mentioned life extension, and I know this is part of that. Do you want to transplant human heads onto artificial bodies? Is that where this is heading in say, 100 years?
There's a mistake there. You said 100 years. No, we're talking 20, 30 years. A much shorter timeframe. The implications, you want to know. I'm giving you the implications. These are them. I hope you're sitting down.
I agree with the critics, this first one will be more like Kitty Hawk than a Boeing 747. Then it will be streamlined, perfected. It'll be faster, you won't need 150 persons, it won't last 36 hours, it'll be done in a hospital next to your building.
Cloning is not yet available on a scale, and the clones tend to die pretty quickly—they get to be ailing quickly, you don't want to perform a cloning procedure on humans yet.
Imagine the future. Head transplantation has become feasible. Artificial uteri will be developed and perfected. In the beginning, it'll help those with horrible conditions. But then, when cloning becomes available, it will change human history forever. You, me, well, hopefully me, will be able to get a new body. If you get a new body, within one year, you're fine. At age 60, you start cloning yourself and then, good as new.
Are people with you on this? Do you have supporters?
This morning, I received this email. I'm going to keep some of it out.
"Dear Dr. Canavero, I do believe the linkage could be done successfully today. I would like to become part of your team. It was my life long dream to perform procedures like this. Here is what i can bring to the team: Trained as orthopedic surgeon, moved to US 15 years ago. I did a post at UMass and Harvard Medical School in regenerative medicine. Have done 400 experimental surgeries on animal models and organized experimental surgery with 5 human patients with incredible results [sic]."
Blah blah blah and so on. What is incredible is reading the papers, people say this is entirely impossible. But silently I've had a lot of support. There was a biochemist who said reconnecting the spinal cord is absolutely possible but the rejection part of it is what makes it hard. They're redirecting now. Dr. Batjer, who said Valery could have a fate "worse than death," he's a vascular surgeon. A vascular surgeon of the brain, yes, but he knows nothing. How can you say such a thing? It's incredible.
It seems hard for people to understand what you're proposing, or to believe it I guess.
There are now 7 billion people, well, 8 billion people in 2040 or so, who are not going to die. There is what we are going to do with clones, and then there are others who will have transplanted their brains into cyborgs. My problem with the cyborg thing is simple: How can you imagine spending 100-200 years, a brain inside a machine, doing what? I propose, it may sound crazy, but there's a way to enhance your brain to have hyper hedonistic features. To have an orgasm-producing device [that would trigger something that feels like an orgasm, without a body]. I know it sounds crazy, but I guess I am the banana master now.
What about some of the other transhumanist things, like creating digital humans?
They want to digitalize all of us. They want to decorporalize humans, which, I don't oppose that, but I want to stay in a body. I like girls. But this is going to change everything. It will allow us to go into space and conquer it. If you're guaranteed to have your lifespan extended, you don't mind moving out into space.
It sounds like there are a lot of possible options.
There is never a single solution, there are different threads unfolding. What must be absolutely clear is that this century will change everything. It will be the dividing point in human history.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.