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Surgeon Swears Human Head Transplant Isn't a 'Metal Gear Solid' Publicity Stunt

Sergio Canavero swears in a police report (under penalty of perjury) that he's not part of some elaborate Hideo Kojima stunt.

by Jason Koebler
Apr 23 2015, 8:03pm

​Canavero in real life, left. The surgeon in MGS5, right. 

Dr. Sergio Canavero wants to become the first surgeon to perform a human head transplant. But is the plan, which captured headlines everywhere (including here) all an absurdly complex marketing stunt for the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V video game?

As if the original narrative— that Canavero plans to transplant the head of Russian Val Spiridonov onto a donor body in 2017—couldn't get any weirder, a member of the ​NeoGaf forum pointed out earlier this week that the doctor in the upcoming blockbuster video game looks exactly like Canavero.

There are other similarities and weird coincidences. But let's get this out of the way up early: I've gotten my hands on a sworn affidavit that Canavero filed with Italian police that formally denies he has anything to do with Konami or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. In the report, Canavero swears to tell the truth or face perjury charges.

That said, this thing has gone into full-on internet conspiracy land,  ​complete with Imgur albums full of crisscrossed arrows point out the similarities between the game and Canavero's real life.

Kotaku has a nice rundown, but head transplant truthers point out that MGS creator Hideo Kojima said that this game will "challenge a certain type of taboo" and that Kojima has found "an ally who would support [him] in that risk." Canavero has done work on "phantom pain," the name of the upcoming game. People also suspect that Solid Snake may get some sort of head transplant in the game.

In the police report, Canavero swears he has nothing to do with Konami.

OK, that all sounds really weird. But Canavero has been talking about this head transplant for years. He's written many scientific papers, including several on GEMINI, his proposed head transplant procedure (contrary to some reports about the conspiracy, his procedure is not called HEAVEN—which has significance in MGS). Canavero's ideas may be out there, and what he wants to do may be controversial, but he is a real doctor.

I have spoken at length with Canavero and with Spiridonov (​listen to our podcast, please). Both were emotional about the amount of attention the proposed procedure has gotten, and Spiridonov, in particular, has been constantly hounded by press and naysayers who have chastised him for his decision. He's got a horrible degenerative muscle condition, and sees the head transplant as his only way to live a normal life.

But why the heck does Canavero look exactly like the surgeon in the MGS5 trailer? He has no idea, and he's not thrilled about it.

Canavero didn't have time to talk to me specifically about the allegations of conspiracy, but referred me to his lawyer, Stefano Ponte, who sent me a police report Canavero filed with Italian police.

"Dr. Canavero was totally unaware of the use of his image and allusions to his research into the video game," Ponte told me in an email.

In the police report, Canavero swears he has nothing to do with Konami.

"On April 19, 2015, I received in my email inbox an email coming from the UK from the account [redacted], containing a link which directed to the trailer of the upcoming video game Metal Gear Solid V Phantom Pain, produced by Konami in Japan," the report reads. "The trailer features a video with a doctor with my physical likeness and a series of very violent scenes, some computer generated (presumably, they used an authentic video of me, which was then digitized, probably obtained from one of my TED Conference talks)."

"I do not have any suspects," he added. "I have nothing else to add except to declare my willingness to proceed against the people responsible for the facts explained here, which the judicial authority will observe as crimes."

The similarities are striking, and there is the possibility Canavero's head transplant plan is a publicity stunt—but it doesn't seem to be because he wants to promote a video game. He is more focused on promoting his work. I spoke with Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University medical school, about what Canavero is trying to do. He believes Canavero's surgery is never going to happen.

"I think there's a little bit of a PR angle here," Caplan said. "I think there's hype here, that he's drawing attention to himself, enjoying the limelight. If he were serious, he wouldn't be going about it this way, he wouldn't be recruiting a human patient or making promises to desperate people. He'd be in the lab saying, I have a new way to fuse the spinal cord, let me test it on animals."

We surely haven't heard the end of this. I've reached out to Italian copyright lawyers for their take on it, and have asked Canavero to talk more about it. A weird story keeps getting weirder. Canavero is set to "unveil secrets" about the procedure at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in June. I wouldn't count on the presentation to be a Metal Gear Solid trailer. 

Denuncia Canavero