In 2013, Chinese surgeon Xiaoping Ren conducted a historic surgery: he basically sliced the head off one mouse and attached it to the body of another.
Believe it or not, the grotesque creature he had created actually survived for a few minutes – it opened its eyes, and even managed to breathe on its own. The operation was hailed a success, and since then, the eccentric doctor and his team have conducted head transplants on over 1,000 mice!
With each operation, Dr. Ren has tried to perfect his procedure by using tiny tubes to carry oxygenated blood from the mice’s brains to their new bodies.
After over 1,000 transplants, the results are not very encouraging – after the procedure, the mice open their eyes, breathe on their own and even show signs of movement, but so far, every one of them has died within a day.
That sounds scary and even unethical, but Dr. Ren is so motivated by his modest success that he wants to continue experimenting on other creatures. According to a Wall Street Journal report, he’s planning to conduct head transplants on monkeys next, hoping to create the first head-transplanted primate that can live and breathe on its own, ‘at least for a little while’.
Dr. Ren, who used to work at the University of Cincinnati, moved back to China because the government had offered a whopping $1.6 million to fund his mice project. He is now hoping to receive more grants for a head transplant that he’s attempting on a monkey, this summer.
Unfortunately, Dr. Ren’s fellow medical practitioners remain skeptical about his work, and have dubbed him ‘Dr. Frankenstein’. “The whole idea is ridiculous,” New York medical ethics professor Arthur Caplan told the WSJ.
Robert Truog, director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, added that head transplants have “profound implications for personal identity.”
But the Chinese government doesn’t seem too bothered by criticism – The Wall Street Journal reports that the government is willing to back the scientific research of people like Dr. Ren because it helps their ultimate goal to become a scientific powerhouse. “China right now they want to go to the top,” Dr. Ren said. “If you think there’s a really great benefit in research, China can put up resources to support you.”
“The political leaders want to see the Chinese winning the Nobel Prize,” added Cong Cao, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.
According to Dr. Ren, if head transplants can be perfected, doctors could someday help patients whose brains are intact but bodies are broken. Interestingly, he isn’t the only doctor to believe in the potential of head transplants. A couple of months ago, we wrote about controversial surgeon Sergio Canavero, who is actually preparing to transplant a man’s head to another body!
In fact, Ren’s team is using a technique similar to Dr. Canavero’s – they believe that by severing the spinal cord with an ultra sharp blade, the clean cut will have a better chance of fusing back together.