Russian man volunteers for world's first human head transplant surgery

LONDON - A terminally ill man from Russia could become the first person to undergo controversial head transplant surgery.

Computer scientist Valery Spiridonov, 30, who suffers from a rare muscle-wasting disease called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, has volunteered for the procedure, which involves cutting off his head and re-attaching it to a healthy body.

Stricken by the disease since the age of one, Mr Spiridonov is already without the use of his legs, and it is rapidly getting worse. He told The Daily Mail that he is eager to experience a new body before he dies.

"My decision is final and I do not plan to change my mind," he said. "Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am. But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting."

The man behind this contentious procedure is Italian physician Dr Sergio Canevero. Dr Canevero has dubbed the process HEAVEN, an acronym for "head anastomosis venture; anastomosis is surgically connecting two parts".

He told CNN news network he had received an overwhelming response from people who wanted this procedure, but picked Mr Spiridonov as he wanted his first patients to be people suffering from a muscle wasting disease.

Dr Canevero estimates that the operation will take 36 hours and cost 7.5 million pounds (S$15 million). It will be performed by a 150-strong team of doctors and nurses at a major medical centre.

"I say two years is the time needed for the team to reach perfect synchronisation," he told CNN.

He referred to a case in 1970, when Dr Robert White successfully transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

The monkey died after eight days as the body rejected the head and it could not breathe or move due to the spinal cord not being attached properly.

Insisting that his procedure will work, Dr Canavero revealed that both the donor - someone who is brain-dead but otherwise healthy - and patient would have their heads severed from their spinal cords at exactly the same moment.

Then, a glue-like substance will be used to stick the two ends of the spinal cord together. The patient, with his new body, will be put into a coma for four weeks for the head and body to heal.

Critics have branded the Italian as "nuts", with Dr Hunt Batjer, president-elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, saying that it was impossible.

"I would not wish this on anyone, I would not allow anyone to do it to me, there are a lot of things worse than death," he said.

But the potential patient himself, who expressed hope that the operation could be done as early as 2017, is undaunted.

"I can hardly control my body now. I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease," said Mr Spiridonov.

mklee@sph.com.sg