Chinese surgeon denies performing world's first human head transplant
A Chinese medical team refuted claims that they had performed the world's first successful human head transplant, saying they only have a design of the operation.

Under the guidance of Professor Ren Xiaoping, the world's first human head transplant has been successfully accomplished in China, said Italian doctor Sergio Canavero at a press conference in Vienna, Austria, China's national broadcaster CCTV reported earlier. The news immediately stirred widespread controversy, with many medical experts saying surgical procedures on a corpse could not be called an operation but an autopsy.

Ren and his surgical team addressed the media on Tuesday, agreeing there has been no operation, but a completion of the revolutionary transplant's model design.

Italian doctor Sergio Canavero and his “Chinese pal” Ren Xiaoping, a surgeon and professor from the Harbin Medical University, had made headlines for the bold trial of human “head transplant”. It was widely reported the operation was done in Ren's university and was guided by him.

Over the past several years, Canavero and Ren have gained widespread attention through the controversial procedure. And they came into global spotlight recently because Canavero promised to apply the unbelievable procedure on the body of a living person in China next year.

According to a report by thepaper.cn, an influential Chinese news website, although the Italian neurosurgeon's team claims to have “grasped the expertise” to perform the operation, it has failed to provide any concrete or convincing evidence on how they would realize spinal cord restoration, which is regarded as the top challenge for the procedure.

Ren told the media he and his partner had reconnected the spinal cord and blood vessels of the head of one cadaver with those on the body of another in an 18-hour experiment. And in the next week, the results of the test run on dead bodies would be published in the Surgical Neurology International, a medical journal.

The two doctors are besieged not only by skepticism on ethical grounds this time. Viability of their “head transplant” is also challenged by China's medical community.

Based on information publicly available, Canavero, 52, a Doctor of Medicine, graduated from the University of Turin and worked as neurosurgeon for the medical institute affiliated to the university for 22 years. In 2015, Canavero's studies attracted massive criticism and so he left the university.

Since 2013, the Italian doctor began to increase his media exposure. Engaging in studies of head transplant since 1982, he claimed he had invented a protocol titled “GEMINI” to enable human head transplant.

Ren Xiaoping, 56, boasts a prominent presence in China's medical scene. As the vice director of the orthopedics department of a hospital affiliated to the Harbin Medical University, and a respected doctoral supervisor, Ren has conducted the first replantation of a severed limb in northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

In 1999, he participated in the world's first successful hand transplant in the medical school of the University of Louisville. In 2012, Ren came back to Harbin from the United States and operated a head transplant on mouse in 2013, with the animal remaining alive for a whole day after the operation.


From 2015, the name of Ren began to be mentioned a lot along with Canavero and his head transplant trials. Different from his vocal partner, Ren has been trying to keep a low-profile on their work. He made it clear several times that there is no timetable set for the so-called human head transplant. And he even prefers not to use the sensational language of head transplant.

In September 2015, Canavero publicly said the world's first human head transplant would be a cooperation between him and Ren, and it will happen in the Second Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University in December 2017. Ren denied what Canavero said, while confirming no timetable was set for such an operation on humans.

In January 2016, Canavero announced to cooperate with Ren in operating a head transplant on a monkey. Meanwhile, the Italian doctor said he planned to do the first head transplantation in Russia for Valery Spiridonov, a Russian programmer suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, a muscle-wasting disease.

In May 2016, he once again vowed to perform a human head transplant by the end of 2017, although the location of the operation was changed to China and the volunteer to receive the operation changed to Chinese. And the operation was to be guided by a Chinese medical team, he claimed.

But Ren again denied the remarks, indicating the time and location were not set for such an operation, while noting there was a long way to go.

In May 2017, Canavero said that within 10 months, a Chinese patient would be receiving the first-ever human head transplant in the world in Harbin. And he indicated that Ren would hold a press conference in two months to give out the exact schedule. Ren reiterated that no timetable, volunteer and site for such an operation was set.

The revolutionary procedure is generally regarded by medical experts to have three top technical challenges—central nervous system regeneration, cerebral ischemia and immunological rejection, among which the first one is believed to be the most impossible mission. The medical community is curious about how the two could connect the spinal cord of the head and torso from different persons and make sure the central nervous system's function be restored.

Some believe Canavero's “magic power” may come from polyethylene glycol (PEG), which has been prove to bring regression of spinal nerves in animal experiments. Besides, the two doctors have also emphasized the role of surgical skills, which is believed to minimize the damage to spinal nerves.

In the head transplant for monkeys, blood vessels were successfully connected while spiral nerves failed to be connected, and the monkey was paralyzed below head. The surgical team put the animal to death 20 hours after the operation, based on ethical considerations.

In June 2016, it was reported that Canavero's team severed 90 percent of a dog's neck and used PEG to do the repair. The dog began walking three weeks after the operation, while further details were not disclosed.

In June 2017, Ren and Canavero jointly published a paper in a medical journal, claiming their teams had used PEG to realize repairing of mouse' spinal nerves. The mouse being experimented was claimed to have survived for at least four weeks.

The duo claim to have gained the expertise to repair spinal nerves although they have failed to provide the proof that could convince the medical community.

The World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies (WFNS) said in a statement that before realizing spinal nerve regeneration, the head transplant is unacceptable ethically and meaningless scientifically.

Hunt Batjer, the chairman of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, commented the connection of spinal cord would be a big problem, and even if the patient could survive, he would not be able to move or even breathe.

And the biggest question relates to logic - if they know how to repair spinal cord, then why don't they first cure those paralyzed patients? 

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