College of Law > About > Centers & Institutes > Mary and Michael Jaharis Health Law Institute > E-Pulse Newsletter > Is Science Heading in the Right Direction? Head Transplants Might be the Cure for Degenerative Diseases
By By Calvin Edwards /
April 28, 2015 /
Posted in: HLI News /
As early as 2017, human head transplants may transcend science fiction and become a reality, making the shocking procedures that occur in science fiction films and books like Frankenstein a reality. Italian scientist, Sergio Canavero, stated his “Gemini” spinal fusion procedure could be used to save the lives of patients suffering from muscle diseases, nerve degenerative diseases, and stated that spinal fusion could improve the lives of quadriplegics. 
The first monkey head transplant took place about 40 years ago.  Dr. Canavero believes that we are now at the point of technical achievement where head transplants are feasible.  In a head transplant procedure the donor body would come from a normal transplant donor who is brain dead, and the patient would be suffering from a degenerative disease or would be a quadriplegic.  Both the donor and the patient would have their heads removed from their spinal cord at the same time with the use of an extremely sharp blade.  Next, the patient’s head would be placed upon the donor’s body and attached using polyethylene glycol to fuse the two ends of the spinal cord.  Finally, the patient would be placed into a medically induced coma for three to four weeks to recover after the surgery.  However, should this type of procedure be done at all? Is this advanced medical procedure ethical?
Dr. Canavero claims this procedure is ethical because it will benefit people who have very little hope of being cured of their ailments. Many critics do not agree and believe that doctors might be motivated to perform a head transplant surgery for all of the wrong reasons.  Dr. Christopher Scott, bioethicist at Stanford, argues "[D]octors have to make sure the motivations are around a true medical need, and not some desire to be famous. . . [T]hese questions have been raised before, in procedures like face transplants." 
Further, if head transplants are allowed to occur there might be an increase in organ harvesting. Some physicians may see little incentive in keeping brain-dead individuals in comas.  This could lead to physicians using the bodies of brain-dead patients in head transplant surgeries.  Additionally, others have raised more ethical issues involving reproductive rights. For example, if the patient were to reproduce with their newfound body, the offspring may biologically belong to the body donor.  What legal and moral consequences will occur? All of this is hard to digest for many critics. Some skeptics believe the procedure is a pipedream. According to Richard Borgens, the director of Purdue’s Center for Paralysis Research, there is no evidence that the connectivity of cord and the brain would lead to motor functions and other functions following the head transplant. 
Dr. Canavero understands the ethical implications of this procedure, stating “[I]f society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it.... that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else. I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon you want to make sure people will follow you.” 
Nevertheless, it appears that head transplants are procedures that society is not ready for despite the view head transplants will be beneficial for individuals who suffer from nerve degenerative diseases, paralysis, or other degenerative ailments.
Calvin Edwards is a current student at DePaul University College of Law. Mr. Edwards received his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Lewis University. He will complete his J.D. Degree with an emphasis in health care law in 2016.
 Douglas Perry, Human head transplant could happen in two years, despite ethical concerns, The Oregonian(Feb. 26, 2015), available at, http://www.oregonlive.com/living/index.ssf/2015/02/human_head_transplant_could_ha.html.
 Fiona Macrae, Could doctors transplant a HEAD onto a body in 2 years’ time? Italian surgeon confident he can perform £7.5 million operation, Daily Mail (Feb. 25, 2015), available at,http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2969375/Could-doctors-REALLY-transplant-head-body-2-years-time-Italian-surgeon-confident-perform-7-5milllion-operation-help-paralysed-patients-like-Christopher-Reeve.html.
 Perry, supra note 1.
 Macrae, supra note 2.
 Susie Neilson, WOULD A HUMAN HEAD TRANSPLANT BE ETHICAL?, Popular Science (July 3, 2013), available at,http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-07/would-human-head-transplant-be-ethical.
 See generally, Liz Kilimas, Ethicist’s Stunning Challenge: Why Wait Until a Patient Is Dead to Harvest Organs? The Blaze (Apr. 9 2013 11:14 am) available at, http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/04/09/ethicists-stunning-challenge-why-wait-until-a-patient-is-dead-to-harvest-organs/.
 Macrae, supra note 2.
 Perry, supra note 1.
 Michelle Starr, Human head transplant just two years away, surgeon claims, Cnet (Feb. 25, 2015), available at, http://www.cnet.com/news/human-head-transplant-just-two-years-away-surgeon-claims/.