This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Marleen Eijkholt, PhD, LL.B/LL.M
On May 1, 2017, the Daily Mail reported on a successful head-transplant involving rats, as a “practice run for [a] controversial human experiment.” Indeed, this run would seem timely and perhaps minimal pertaining only to rats, given the proposed timeline toward the first-ever human head-transplant (HHT). Some reports suggest December 2017 as the date for the HHT, while others report that December is unlikely, and that the procedure would have to be delayed.
With the first HHT on the horizon, guttural yuck-reactions, and references to the ethical questionability of this procedure abound. A famous ethicist suggested that the surgeon is “out of his mind.” But I am unsure if this rejection is fair. If we have allowed the development of kidney, heart, hand, face, uterus, and penis transplants, why would this new area of transplant medicine raise prohibitive concerns?
Several areas of ethical concerns have been identified, and I want to address three reflections briefly here. Although many more could be identified, including the concern that a ‘body transplant’ also means that its other organs cannot be used for other purposes, I will not go into these issues due to word limitations. I offer thoughts for further discussion, drawing on parallels from other controversial (surgical) interventions, i.e. stem cell interventions for spinal cord injury (SCI) and deep brain stimulation (DBS). Often ethics is seen as a prohibitive ‘science’ but I do not want to endorse this idea. Instead, I hope to ask how we can ensure that this development proceeds as reflectively as possible.
The history of HHT up to this point is described in many places. In 2013, an Italian surgeon, Canavero, first suggested his willingness to do a HHT, causing outrage and interest. Canavero has given a TED talk in the meantime, published several manuscripts [3, 19] and protocols [1, 2] on the procedure. Initially, one Russian individual, Valery Spiridonov, came forward to undergo the HHT and is now considered as potentially the first patient, while others have started to line up. Spiridonov has a degenerative and incurable muscle disease (Werdnig-Hoffmann) and is confined to a wheelchair. Cost-estimates of the procedure include a 7.5-20 million dollar, 36-hour operation, with a team of 150 people. The community has expressed serious reservations about the scientific feasibility. Still, we read that the first head-transplant in monkeys occurred in 1970 and that several dogs and mice have undergone the procedure. These were mostly as proof of principle, and not focused on long-term survival. Currently, there is no substantial proof that the recipient can be ‘kept alive’ long-term.
Informed Consent (IC)
A primary concern is whether Spiridonov can offer informed consent. Given his vulnerability, suffering Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, and based on reports about what Spiridonov said, these concerns are real. Spiridonov’s desire is to be like the “first man on the moon,” generate knowledge for future generations, and that the HHT will help him. Hence, he seems vulnerable to therapeutic misconceptions and risk-mitigation biases, especially in the light of a surgical learning curve that will challenge the first HHT . Spiridonov’s narrative refers to the first man on the moon—who successfully made it—failing to mention the others who did not make it. Another part of this concern relates to identity problems that transplant individuals might experience with an alien body (part), where HHT concerns a whole body and an irreversible transplant .
These areas of concern have been dealt with at length, in reference to transplants and other emerging (surgical) interventions. I do think these concerns can be addressed, provided a thorough shared decision-making process, like in DBS . Why would it be different in the HHT context?
It seems an incredible leap to move from rat experiments to human interventions, without bigger animal models. However, such leap is not unprecedented, and might not automatically be condemned. Geron, a company that injected stem cell derived products in the spinal cord of SCI patients, moved from rat trials to humans. They skipped large animal models in assessing feasibility. Their decision was met two ways. One set of arguments stated the unacceptability of this practice as humans would now be exposed to unacceptable risks, based on insufficient knowledge. Another set of arguments was perhaps less outraged, suggesting that animal rights arguments might favor such direct application. Sacrificing large animals could not always be justified, especially if evidence in large animals may still not apply to humans . Would it be in the HHT case?
A final question is: How to go about the risk/benefit assessment for someone whose medical need is not immediately life threatening? Spiridonov does not suffer an immediately life threatening illness, unlike liver failure, so some might argue that the risk/benefit profile of this experiment is disproportionate. Aside from concerns about the patient facing risks, executing novel risky experimental interventions may entail a loss of trust in the field if they go wrong. We have seen this in the tragic story of Jesse Gelsinger, gene therapy trial participant. So, some could argue that Spiridonov’s medical need does not warrant a loss of trust in science. But in response one could propose that for a proper risk/benefit assessment, weighing many factors is required. We see that for many composite allograft transplant areas as well as for DBS, the focus is on improving quality of life, not providing a cure. References to medical need and life-saving interventions are social constructs. If interventions like penis transplants were justified and marked as life-saving, referencing suicide concerns, life-limiting conditions like Spiridonov’s condition could put these concerns into perspective.
Although HHT are a new transplant territory, many of the headaches are familiar ethical concerns to the domain of novel transplant medicine and emerging surgical interventions. I am unsure that HHT is very different than the first heart transplant, which was met with huge skepticism, involving concerns about survival, IC, and identity. Heart transplants have offered huge progress in medicine, by generating new knowledge and applications for patient well-being. What makes us say that this body/human head-transplant is going to be less of a revolutionary intervention, and should be stopped before it even begins?
Marleen Eijkholt is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Dr. Eijkholt is also a clinical ethicist at Spectrum Health System.
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, June 22, 2017. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.