Head transplant experiments spark debate in China

June 16, 2015 10:50 am 

HARBIN, June 15 — A surgeon in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province has triggered public debate after announcing plans to perform a head transplant on primates after successfully operating on mice.

Ren Xiaoping, a doctor with the second affiliated hospital of Harbin Medical University, successfully transplanted the head of one mouse to another's body in 2013. The team has since performed nearly 1,000 such operations, though very few survive long after the surgery.

Ren's team has been working on perfecting the operation and announced plans to test the procedure on monkeys in the future, without going into detail.

Ren studied and worked in the U.S. before returning to china three years ago. He said head transplants present the ultimate challenge for medical experts.

"How to reconnect the donor and recipient spinal cords, how to keep the brain alive during the transfer and how to prevent the body from rejecting the head are all technical difficulties we need to overcome," he said.

Each small step of progress in medical science requires countless tries and even failures, he said.

As a scientific researcher and a doctor, he hopes such experiments might help people with spinal cord injuries or muscular dystrophy in the future.

His ambitious plan, more at home in science fiction, is beyond many people's imagination and has drawn hot debate in both real and virtual settings.

If these experiments can help patients with incurable diseases and scientists in other countries have been also conducting such research they should be allowed, Web user "Jiankanglyuxing" commented on microblog Sina Weibo.

The world's first attempted head transplant on a monkey dates back to 1970, when American neurosurgeon Robert J. White transplanted the head of one monkey to the body of another. The monkey died after several days due to immunorejection.

The most recent planned head transplant was announced by Italian physician Sergio Canavero, who said he will transplant a human head to a new body in 2017. He has identified a 30-year-old Russian man who suffers from a rare genetic disorder as the first patient, according to CNN.

However, skepticism remains on the feasibility of head transplants and Ren's team has faced criticism on its violation of animal rights, as well potential moral and ethical problems.

Jiang Jinsong, associate professor with the Institute of Science, Technology and Society of Tsinghua University, said such costly operations might never be within the realm of possibility.

He also criticized using animals in medical experiments. "(The project) needs countless head transplants on animals. The cost is relatively low, but it's unnecessary and cruel."

Many animal protection volunteers feel the same.

"Humans don't have the right to kill animals for the purpose of saving humans themselves," one user commented on Sina Weibo.

Wang Yifang, a medical ethics expert with Institute of Medical Humanities at Peking University, welcomes possible breakthroughs in medical science brought by a successful head transplant on animals. But when it comes to human head transplants, he believes there are stricter ethical evaluations that need to take place.

"It's very complicated. You have your own head but another's body, so who are you and who is your family?" he asked.

"We don't know what will happen. But the fact humans 'can' do the surgical procedure in the future does not mean they 'should' do it," he said. (PNA/Xinhua)

LGI/EDS

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