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Are we really two years from full body transplants?

“While there’s life, there’s hope”. The famous quote by Stephen Hawking, adopted in The Theory of Everything which won the 87th Oscars last month, is always a source of strength for terminally-ill patients.

Now the idea of transplanting a live person’s brain to a dead body is no longer merely an imaginary scenario in horror or sci-fi movies.

Advancing medical technologies are believed to be making it a reality in two years.

Sergio Canavero, a doctor in Turin, Italy, recently published an outline demonstrating how full body transplants could be performed to prolong the lives of patients whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer.

The first successful head transplant was attempted on a monkey in 1970 at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US. But the monkey only lived for nine days as its immune system rejected the head.

To perform the surgery, doctors would first cool the patient’s head and the donor’s body to prevent their cells from dying. The neck is cut through, the blood vessels joined with thin tubes, and the spinal cord cut with a sharp knife to minimise nerve damage. The recipient’s head is then moved on to the donor’s body.

Technical hurdles of fusing the spinal cord, reviving the reconstructed person and retraining the brain to use thousands of unfamiliar nerves and preventing the body’s immune system from rejecting the head imply that the surgery could be ready as early as 2017. 

According to the research, the patient will be able to walk within one year with the help of physical therapy after the transplant. Dr Canavero is hoping to assemble a team to assist him in a conference for neurological surgeons in Maryland, USA this June where he will perform the first human full body transplant.

While bringing good news to patients, his ideas are met with disbelief in surgeons and opposition from advocates of ethics.

Dr Andrew Chitty, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy in University of Sussex, told The Badger, “what is wrong with this procedure is that it opens up the possibility of prolonging an individual’s life indefinitely. Most of us fear death, so we might welcome this. But in fact immortality is not a good for human beings but rather an evil.

“It is certainly not a good for the human race as a whole (see for example Kurt Vonnegut’s short story ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’), and I would argue that it is not a good for any individual human being either.

Rather than developing medical technologies that hold open the prospect of living forever, we should be focusing on ones that improve the quality of our finite lives.”

Medico-moral implications are raised regarding Dr Canavero’s concept. The costliness of this surgery exposes it to exploitation by wealthy individuals. As with cases of designer babies, genetic modification and cloning, organs and bodies become commodified, and the sanctity of lives no longer respected or cherished. 

In addition, this concept would widen the gap between the rich and the poor, reinforcing the idea that money makes people immortal. Conveying this message to the younger generation will be detrimental to their ethical values. If you could extend your life indefinitely, would you still take utmost care of your health and make full use of your time?

Imagine a world where everyone cultivate bad lifestyles in the knowledge that money can solve the problem, imagine that everyone looks for money in the wrong places to buy lives which are originally priceless.

Regarding the commodification of organs, because of the high demand of organs for around 10000 medical procedures each year and low donation rates, organs of executed prisoners in China used to be collected without permission of themselves or their family. 

Body parts may be traded for profit and end up on the black market. Thanks to human rights advocates, China’s organ donation committee has forbidden these scenarios starting from January this year. 

Without appropriate regulation, it is worrying that a similar story from China’s history would be brought about by the procedure of full body transplant – where wealthy, aging individuals secure the healthy bodies of young individuals on the black market, with “unscrupulous” surgeons carrying out the head transplantation.

In response to ethical concerns raised, Dr Canavero said, “If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else.”

One of doctors’ roles is to benefit patients and the public – they should uphold social justice. Let’s hope that they will remember the values they have vowed in the Hippocratic Oath.

Dorothy Yim

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