Doctor in China to Perform First-Ever Human Head Transplant Surgery

A surgeon shows an x-ray of a patient before a facial reconstruction operation in Beijing, China, July 27, 2006.
A surgeon shows an x-ray of a patient before a facial reconstruction operation in Beijing, China, July 27, 2006. | (Photo: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV)

A Chinese orthopedic surgeon who helped perform the first hand transplant in 1999 is looking to perform another medical first: transplanting a human head from one body to another.

Dr. Ren Xiaoping of Harbin Medical University announced this week that he is planning to lead a team of surgeons to perform the first-ever head transplant.

The announcement has brought much concern from medical experts about the ethical nature of such a novel procedure, according to the publication Medical Daily.

"Theoretically, the project is medically possible, but if you feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of transplanting someone's head onto a dead body, you're not alone," noted Medical Daily.

"Although the public and medical community may vehemently oppose conducting this procedure on a human, is there really anything that can be done to stop it? Probably not. Chinese doctors are known to push ethical boundaries, and just recently caused an uproar when they edited the genes of human embryos."

A major goal of the proposed procedure would be to give a new body to individuals whose present bodies are inoperable due to being paralyzed.

"Ren said that he was building a team, that research was underway and that the operation would take place 'when we are ready,'" reported CNBC.

"His plan: Remove two heads from two bodies, connect the blood vessels of the body of the deceased donor and the recipient head, insert a metal plate to stabilize the new neck, bathe the spinal cord nerve endings in a gluelike substance to aid regrowth and finally sew up the skin."

Many medical ethicists have taken issue with the proposed surgery, with some arguing that it is "scientifically impossible," "reckless," or "at best premature."

"The idea for a body transplant is the kind of thinking that has experts around the world alarmed at how far China is pushing the ethical and practical limits of science," continued CNBC.

"Such a transplant is impossible, at least for now, according to leading doctors and experts, including some in China, who point to the difficulty of connecting nerves in the spinal cord. Failure would mean the death of the patient."

Ren has performed head transplant surgeries on lab mice on several hundred occasions, though all his test subjects died within minutes of the operation.

"Ren claims his work isn't frivolous [and] likened it to previous concerns about now more commonplace hand transplants," noted the U.K. Independent in an article from 2015.

"[He also] claimed his research might one day be able to help human patients who have healthy heads but have suffered spinal-cord injuries or muscle-wasting diseases."

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