DNA, Transplants, and Modern Science

Ed Raymond

“He’s Got A Good Head On His Shoulders” May Have An Entirely New Meaning

They have done it to mice, rats, and dogs. Humans could be next. About 220 years ago Queen Antoinette of France, famous for her sarcastic “Let them eat cake!” lost her head to the guillotine when the executioner pronounced, “Off with her head!” Perhaps soon a French doctor will order, “Off with her head!” and then carry it to another operating table so it can be transplanted to a fresh, undamaged female body. Writer Sam Kean in the September Atlantic says a head transplant could be close. After all, we have now accomplished transplants of kidneys, hearts, hands, fingers, lungs, faces, scalps, livers, and have grown ear transplants on the backs of patients.

The work toward transplanting heads started back in 1908 when a St. Louis, Missouri implanted the head of a dog to the neck of another. It survived for a few days. Soviet surgeons in 1958 transplanted the head and front paws of a dog to another that survived for 23 days. Another Soviet dog with two heads lived for 29 days and was said to be able to lap water with both heads. In the 1970’s Cleveland surgeon Robert White transplanted the heads of a number of rheusus monkeys to new bodies. He did not attempt to connect spinal cords so they could possible walk or move their arms, but he did concentrate on keeping their brains alive. The first one he tried awakened from the transplant and tried to bite a finger of an attendant. They did eat when hungry, tracked objects with their eyes, and their brain waves appeared to be normal. But a major problem remained. How do we hook up severed nerves and spinal cords? Chinese surgeons may have solved this crucial problem. With experiments in transplanting the heads of mice, they have severed the spinal cord with a $1,000 scalpel with a diamond blade so thin it is transparent. Then they quickly douse the cut ends with a chemical called polyethylene glycol. The nerve cells and cord gradually grow together and regenerate and the mouse is able to walk again within two days. This is the part that makes transplant surgeons think they will be soon be able to transplant human heads. It brings some reality to the old joke about the shelf of used heads in a transplant store, when the clerk says: “Now the one on the left is from a politician who never used his head for anything…..”

 The World Now Has A Very Willing Patient For The Human Head Transplant Experiment

 A 31-year-old Russian named Valery Spiridonov has a very debilitating disease called Werdnig-Hoffman Syndrome, a genetic disorder that destroys muscles and kills motor neurons, the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that send the signals for the body to move. Valery’s condition is fatal, but his doctors do not know how long he will live. Valery lives in a wheelchair, has no memory of ever walking. He can feed himself, can type, and can steer his chair with a joystick—but that’s about it. His legs are permanently crossed and his lower body looks as if it has been deflated. Valery actually runs a tech company from his chair, follows most technical advances in several fields. After studying the experiments of Chinese, Russian, Italian and American doctors, Valery is enthusiastic about getting a body replacement: “Removing all my sick parts but the head would do a great job in my case. I couldn’t see any other way of treating my case.”

Surgeons interested in conducting the first human head transplant estimate it would cost as much as $100 million to pull off, utilizing about 80 surgeons in many specialties. There are a number of medical ethicists and critics who say the surgeons would be committing murder. But some think there have been so many advances in transplant surgery in the last 30 years that such an operation is scientifically possible—if the nerve cell and spinal cord problem can be resolved. New techniques in reattachment surgery and new drugs can eliminate the threat of rejection. And along with all of the regular transplants conducted over the last couple of decades, doctors are now transplanting uteruses, voice boxes, tongues, and penises. The body of car crash victim Scott Santana recently had his tissue and organs transplanted into 76 people. That has got to be a record. Although Karla Perez was declared brain-dead in 2015, she gave birth to a healthy baby 54 days after that decision. Her daughter Angel is being raised by her husband—and her three-year-old sister Genesis. What’s left—except for the transplant of a head and complete body? In a sense it is really a body transplant because the head represents only 10% of our body weight.

 A Few Of The Major Challenges Facing Head Transplant Surgeons

 The biggest problem facing surgeons is keeping the brain alive for the hour it would take to make the necessary reattachments just to keep the brain alive. Now the brain is severely damaged if it goes without a blood supply for more than a few minutes—if it isn’t rapidly cooled down. Then it might remain usable for an hour. Another problem is we have no idea how immunosuppressant drugs will affect the brain. The brain is a very complicated organ compared to a liver. Another major problem is created when the spinal cord is “reattached.” So far hand and face transplant patients can smile, twiddle their thumbs and do other usual things. But gluing a complex spinal cord together so the right nerves hit the other right nerves is a very risky procedure. What happens when the nerves running the liver from the brain end up running the kidneys in the body? That could be messy. We are just beginning to solve spinal cord problems by using stem cells, flesh, and other procedures to repair damaged spinal cords. The process has allowed patients to “relearn” how to walk.

An Italian neurosurgeon named Sergio Canavero has been planning head transplants for years and got doubly enthusiastic about the procedure when Valery volunteered to be the first patient in 2013. First you need an undamaged body from a brain-dead physically fit person who has died relatively close to the person with the good head. (What happens when you transplant a 45-year-old head to a 20-year-old body? Does the head rule the life span? Inquiring minds want to know!!) If this were Valery’s transplant, his body temperature would be reduced to 50 degrees which would delay tissue death in the brain. The heads would be removed from both bodies at this point. No need to go into details here. It’s like a decapitation. Then the last remaining connections, the spinal cords, would be cut at the same time using a diamond scalpel. A quick alignment would line up nerve cells and blood supply and the magic potion would fuse spinal cord cells. Then the surgeons would begin to complete the attachment of the head to the body. This surgery would take about 36 hours. The first hand transplant involved operations over two years and required 20 surgeons with varying specialties. Welcome to the “Brave New World” of modern medicine. (Could a 20-year-old head make it possible for an 84-year-old body to last another 42 years? I’m just curious.) Read the article. It’s a brain-stretcher.

 How To Create A Face From DNA—And Inhabit A Villa With An Underwater Master Bedroom

 Perhaps in my lifetime a head transplant will be successful. There was a time when people thought only God could create the intricacies of a watch. A few years ago the cryonic crowd began to remove human heads from human bodies and freeze them so they could be revived when defrosted and reattached to enjoy a better life. Perhaps Hall of Famer Ted Wiliams could be put back together from the Alcor Comany freezers in Scottsdale, Arizona and become the batting coach for the 2035 Minnesota Twins. In the meantime the science of DNA, discovered in 1859 by Swiss biochemist  Friedrich Miescher, will dazzle our world with amazing benefits for mankind.  It made it possible for the development of a genetically modified bacterium that’s eats crude oil. The first person convicted of murder by the use of DNA evidence was a Brit in 1988. It’s now possible to create a facial composite of a human just from DNA left at the scene of a crime. It’s not picture-perfect, but it’s enough to bring out distinguishing features. The real dazzler is the fact that a single gram of DNA can store 700 terabytes of information—the equivalent of 1,000,000 CDs. A Harvard geneticist wrote a book and converted it to DNA and made 70 million copies of it—that fit in an ordinary test tube!! There’s much more in a September Atlantic article by Sam Kean titled “Fun With DNA.” How about bringing back an extinct wooly mammoth by using DNA from remains found around the world utilizing the womb of an elephant? With today’s science it’s possible.

Science can help develop some real fun things. A Dubai developer is building vacation homes with a permanently submerged master bedroom that can be anchored in Persian Gulf coral reefs. Called the Floating Seahorse villas, they will set you back about $3.3 million this fall.

However, science has not solved all of the mysteries surrounding our brains. Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon, was trying to call his mother on his cellphone from a lakeside when lightning struck the phone and sent the bolt through his head, stopping his heart temporarily. He survived the near-death experience but he became obsessed with classical piano music, although he had only had piano lessons as a child. From that point on, classical piano music dominated his life. There seems to be no connection, but we have just brushed the mysteries of the brain.

 A Major Problem: We Still Vote On Tuesdays Because Of Horses

Our ancestors set aside Tuesdays to vote because it often took a Monday to get the team of horses and the wagon to the town to vote. Now a passenger jet can fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours—but we still can’t agree to move the voting day to the weekend–or Monday– or whatever. That says something negative about us.

I thought the picture of two female Olympian volleyball players trying to block a ball also says a lot about culture, religion, and the vagaries of the human mind. The Egyptian woman wore a hijab on her head and long sleeves and black leggings to her ankles while a German woman wore a real skinny bikini. We are in a period of history when religions are creating wars and other hells on earth while thinking individuals are leaving the churches and mosques like lemmings. About 30% of Americans are now checking “No Religion” boxes.

Many evangelicals, eagerly seeking “The Second Coming,” say they will vote for that religious icon The Donald  because “God is using Donald Trump to pave the way for the Second Coming.” At least, that’s what Pastor Frank Amedia says (God has told him this directly!), but he also says only God could explain how Trump has survived the primaries. I guess God forgot to point that out to him in his private lecture. Pastor Tony Perkins of the right-wing and fundamentalist Family Research Council, who also supports Trump, says God sends hurricanes to punish us for the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. I wonder if God had anything to do with sending 31 inches of rain in 48 hours, destroying Pastor Tony’s home in Louisiana. He was forced to escape his house in a canoe. That certainly was a storm of Biblical proportions! I think it’s time to concentrate on what science can do for us.

Credits