The number one cliche in covering medical technology is a reference to science fiction becoming science reality. Oooh…such clever word-play. But…in this case…it pretty much applies. This one comes to us by way of the Daily Mail. The National Geographic Channel is running a documentary on a Soviet Dr Demikhov and Dr White of the US, who did research in the 50s and 60s respectively on head transplants…
Blinking unhappily in the daylight as Demikhov paraded it on its lead, this unfortunate beast had been created by grafting the head and upper body of a small puppy on to the head and body of a fully-grown mastiff, to form one grotesque creature with two heads. The visitors watched in horror and fascination as both of the beast’s mouths lapped greedily at a bowl of milk proffered by Demikhov’s assistants.
During his trip, White learned of new Soviet experiments, in which a severed dog’s head had been kept ‘alive’, not by stitching it onto another dog’s body, but using special life-support machinery. Most remarkable of all, the isolated head had continued to show signs of consciousness – its eyes blinking in response to light, and ears pricking at the tap of a hammer on the cases it was in.
This inspired White to take Demikhov’s original two-headed dog experiment a stage further: not merely grafting one animal’s head on to another’s body, but completely replacing one animal’s head with another.
This highly complicated operation took White three years to plan and he knew many people would find it morally repugnant. But in the late afternoon of March 14, 1970, he went ahead with the world’s first true head transplant, using two rhesus monkeys.
Decapitating both animals, the surgeon successfully managed to stitch the head of one monkey on to the body of the other. He and his team then faced a nervous wait until finally the ‘hybrid’ monkey regained consciousness, opened its eyes and tried to bite a surgeon who put a finger in its mouth.
Apparently, things go on from there to cover that many of the technological issues holding them back could probably be overcome today. Of course, there really remains no good way to restore neural connections to the remainder of the body.
This is certain to ruffle some feathers for being cruel/unethical/perverted. However, we’ve probably come across the modern day equivalent of the Renaissance’s forbidden after-hours dissections in the morgue. Without such culturally unacceptable research, medicine might never move forward.
There’s much more from the Daily News, who has the show listed at 9pm on Jan 28th. We checked our local listings, but it appears it won’t be on any time soon. Any of our international readers want to tape it for us?