Head transplant 'never' to be allowed

Updated 2017-11-25 11:02:12 China Daily

A former vice-minister of health dismissed the possibility of clinical trials in China involving a human head transplant, adding that an experiment done in China had severely violated ethical rules.

"We will never allow such clinical trials to be carried out in China," Huang Jiefu, chairman of the China National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee and former vice-minister of health, told China Daily in an interview on Friday.

"(A live head transplant) is technically impossible, and violates Chinese laws and regulations on organ transplants," he said.

Huang made the remarks following a heated controversy stirred in the past few days by the announcement of completion of a human head transplant on a corpse in China.

The procedure was carried out last week by a team led by Ren Xiaoping, a surgeon at Harbin Medical University in Harbin, Heilongjiang province. During the 18-hour operation, Ren said, he and his assistants successfully reconnected a severed head with the spine, nerves and blood vessels of a corpse.

Italian professor Sergio Canavero, who worked as a partner with Ren in the past few years to make a head transplant feasible, said the transplant was the first such surgery in the world and a similar operation on a live human would take place "imminently", according to a report in the Daily Mail.

The transplant caused widespread controversy, and doctors and scholars in China have been critical.

Huang said the committee is also taking measures that could hold Harbin Medical University accountable for allowing Ren to do such an experiment. "Repair of damaged spinal nerves and brain cells is a challenge that has not been overcome in any part of the world," he said. "It's a meaningless and ridiculous activity to draw attention by experimenting on a corpse."

While there are many disabled people with spinal cord damage, doctors cannot produce any evidence proving that damage to the spinal cord can be repaired, he said.

Even with organ transplants that are routinely performed, rejection after transplantation remains a challenge, he said.

In addition to the technical barriers, a head transplant would come with serious ethical questions, Huang said.

"A patient's identity does not change after having received an organ such as a kidney or liver donated by others, but who will the patient be after having the head changed?"

Huang said he has received phone calls from some top transplant experts in other countries who also suggested similar tests be banned.

"China's organ transplant technologies in the liver, kidney, heart, lungs and small intestine have reached a world-class level," Huang said. "China's organ transplants should progress following indisputably high ethical standards."

There was no response on Friday to calls to Ren and Harbin Medical University from China Daily.

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