China’s Head of Transplants Frowns at Head Transplant

2017-11-24 11:57:17

The world’s first human head transplant violated national regulations for organ transplants, a leading health official told The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, on Thursday.

“China would never allow such a clinical test to be carried out on its soil,” Huang Jiefu, China’s former deputy health minister and current director of the National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee, said on behalf of his organization. Huang added that he hoped the ethics review committees of the institutions involved in the experiment would shoulder their responsibility, as is required of them.

Over the course of 18 grueling hours at a laboratory in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero and Harbin Medical University professor Ren Xiaoping connected the spinal cord of one corpse with the head of another, along with the accompanying blood vessels. Canavero announced the procedure’s success in a Nov. 17 news conference in Vienna, Austria.

But medical experts and laypeople alike have expressed skepticism about whether the grisly experiment is practical or — more importantly — ethical. On Tuesday, Ren denied having performed a “head transplant,” instead referring to the experiment using a more innocuous term: “preclinical operation design.”

“There is still some way to go for a head transplant, and I don’t know when we’ll be able to do it,” Ren told The Paper in Harbin on Tuesday. In a press conference the day before, he responded to reporters’ concerns by saying, “I am a scientist, not an ethicist.”

“As a transplant surgeon, I resolutely oppose this publicity stunt,” said the 71-year-old Huang, who added that upon hearing about the case, many of the world’s leading transplant experts had contacted him to suggest that perhaps it was not worth throwing China’s organ transplant sector into controversy just for the sake of one “indelicate experiment.”

Huang is widely regarded as a pioneer of organ transplantation in China. While serving as deputy health minister from 2001 to 2013, he advocated for the country to stop harvesting organs from executed prisoners — a practice eventually outlawed in January 2015.

As China’s investment into biomedical research continues to grow, some experts worry that ethical hurdles may be sidestepped in the rush to catch up with the West. In 2015, Huang Junjiu, an associate professor at Sun Yat-sen University in southern China’s Guangdong province, was criticized by his international peers after publishing the results of a gene-editing study that used human embryos, which many medical researchers consider taboo for experimental purposes.

“We should bring ourselves to the international stage of organ transplantation with ethics that are beyond question,” Huang said. “Every transplant doctor has the responsibility to care for their country’s reputation.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: The Image Bank/VCG)