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​Weighing the ethical implications of the first head transplant

Valery Spiridonov, a 31-year-old Russian graphic artist, looks on during a press conference on "Autopilot system for wheelchairs" on August 3, 2016 in Moscow.
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero became famous around the world when he enlarged on plans, long cherished, to remove the heads of two people. One would be alive, with an ailing body (a paraplegic, say), the other newly dead or doomed (perhaps the braindead victim of an accident). Last summer, Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero introduced to the stage a man named Valery Spiridonov. AValery Spiridonov has severe muscular atrophy and has been a wheelchair user all his life. Spiridonov has volunteered, whenever Canavero is ready, to be a test patient: the first guy to go under the microtomic knife. / AFP / YURI KADOBNOV        (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Valery Spiridonov, a 31-year-old Russian graphic artist, looks on during a press conference on "Autopilot system for wheelchairs" on August 3, 2016 in Moscow. Spiridonov has volunteered to be the first patient to undergo a head transplant.

In Philadelphia last year, the first double-hand transplant on a child was successfully performed. The U.S. saw its first penis transplant this past May. If all goes according to plan for one patient, the world will see its first head transplant by 2017.

In Philadelphia last year, the first double-hand transplant on a child was successfully performed.

The U.S. saw its first penis transplant this past May. If all goes according to plan for one patient, the world will see its first head transplant by 2017.

But will this be a medical advance, or are we stepping into dangerous ethical territory?

Valery Spiridonov, 31, has volunteered himself for the controversial procedure. Spiridonov resides in Vladimir, Russia, and suffers from the genetic disorder, Werdnig-Hoffman’s disease, which destroys muscles and brain and spinal nerve cells. Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin, China is the surgeon who will perform the procedure.

The transplant would take approximately 36 hours and cost up to $100 million. Critics of the operation argue that the negative implications far outweigh the scientific breakthroughs. Aside from Spiridonov’s death, speculation of adverse reactions to the transplant have ranged from uncontrollable phantom limb pain to insanity.

What do you think of the first head transplant? Are the risks to the patient’s well being outweighed by the potential medical breakthroughs of the procedure?

Guests:

James Giordano, Ph.D., professor of neurology and chief of the neuroethics studies program at Georgetown University Medical Center

Nita A. Farahany, J.D., Ph.D., bioethicist and professor of law and philosophy at Duke University

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