Sergio Canavero has announced more details about his plans to carry out the world's first human head transplant. At a conference in Glasgow, he unveiled the blade with which he will perform the operation, as well as the virtual reality system his patient will use to practice with beforehand.
The Italian neurosurgeon hopes to carry out the head transplant on Valery Spiridonov – a 31-year-old Russian man suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease – next year. Details of exactly when, where and how are not yet known.
However, Canavero unveiled what he called "another milestone" relating to the procedure at the Glasgow Neuro Conference.
At the event, he showcased the blade he will use, which has been designed by Farid Amirouche, professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
The diamond cutting blade has been designed to be extremely accurate, with a retractable and adjustable nerve holder, a rotating head and reflective lights. "The adjustable head can also come equipped with a temperature-controlled vacuumed chamber for minimising blood loss and maintaining nerve-structure integrity during surgery," he told Ooom magazine.
Canavero added: "Amirouche has developed probably the sharpest and most precise blade in the world, which will allow a clear cut of the spinal cord with a minimal impact on the nerves, a cutting system that is innovative and very inventive. It is another milestone on the journey to make the first human head transplant possible."
He also announced a newly developed virtual reality system created by Inventum Bioengineering Technologies that will help Spiridonov adjust to his new life before the operation takes place. This is to try to reduce the psychological impact of having his head attached to someone else's body.
Kiratipath Iamsakul, co-founder of Inventum, said: "The patient will engage in virtual reality experiences that will involve activities requiring the use of bodily movements. These experiences are developed by referring to techniques used in conventional neurorehabilitation for the purpose of providing the most realistic sensations involved in voluntary motor functions.
"The patient will engage in virtual reality training several months before the commencement of the procedure in order to sufficiently prepare for the normalcy of life in a new body."
Canavero, along with researchers from Korea, China and US, are currently developing their method to successfully cut and reattach the spinal cord – a critical element of the operation. Earlier this year, the team reported success on an operation carried out on a dog. In a report by New Scientist, he said 90% of the dog's spinal cord and been severed then re-attached. He also said the procedure had a 50% success rate on mice.
Canavero said more research is due to be published in the near future: "These results prove that a severed spinal cord can be reconstructed. There will be more studies to follow, also on brain-dead organ donors before organ-harvesting, but the current results look very promising that we are on the right path."