What about sewing the heads of monkeys onto other monkeys?

3 March 2015

Posted by: John Meredith

Category: Schools education

The boy asking the question had a look in his eyes that I have since come to beware of in any audience. It is a kind of gleam, an excited avidity, usually accompanied by a hand that has gone up a bit higher than necessary, lifting the shoulder, the rest of the body almost following it out of the seat. It means: ‘I’ve got you now!’

These ‘gotcha’ questions are sometimes predictable and easily dealt with. But not always.  I know that now, but then I was new to speaking about animal research and perhaps a little overconfident. So when he asked me this:
‘What about sewing the heads of monkeys onto other monkeys, is that OK? Do you think THAT is acceptable?!’
I more or less laughed it off. I said something like ‘I think you may have been watching too much science fiction’.

I got a laugh from the room.  I felt bad about that, I wasn’t trying to make him feel small, but I feel worse, now because New Scientist has just informed me that Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy is about to announce the start of a project to perform the first ever human head transplant. And the research that led to the point where this might be possible was partly conducted on, yes, monkeys.

In fact, a successful head transplant had been performed on a monkey by Robert White at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio in 1970, although the success was partial and shortlived because the monkey’s immune system rejected the transplant after nine days. My questioner in that classroom was better informed than me and deserved an answer: can we really justify this sort of severely invasive surgery for the sake of a medical advance that may well be impossible to achieve?

You might think that the Canavero project makes that question less pressing; now that a practical medical application for humans looks a bit more likely we have some benefit to weigh against the costs to the animals.  But there are still many sceptics who think that transplants of this complexity will never be achieved in humans and many more who consider the ethical implications unsurmountable. So, given this level of uncertainty, if we are serious about animal welfare and the ethics of animal research, we should perhaps consider the hardest case, the case where the cost to the animals does not necessarily result in a radical medical innovation to benefit humans, because the hard fact is that a significant amount of basic research with animals will not lead directly to a therapeutic outcome.

Head on a plate

Nobody can pick the winners

So, how would I answer that boy today? I would steel myself and say: yes. With caveats and hedges, of course: we should minimise any pain or suffering that the animals might experience; we should carefully weigh up the likelihood of the procedure delivering a medical advance; we should, in other words, carefully apply all the safeguards contained within current UK legislation for protecting research animals. But we have to remember that no matter how cautious we are, we just cannot tell in advance which research is going to lead to something world changing and which isn’t. Nobody can pick the winners.

The Canavero project, even if successful, doesn’t retrospectively justify the work of Robert White in Ohio on monkeys. The justification for that is in the contribution to science itself, the growth of human knowledge that opens avenues even when it doesn’t deliver a specific, practical outcome. Canavaro just reminds us that we cannot know for sure the benefits that a research project may have 30, 40, 50 years from now, that many projects that appear to be dead ends in their own time can have earth shattering consequences in the future while others that seem incredibly exciting in their day may simply fade disappointingly away.

This can be a hard thing to explain, especially to the young who sometimes find it terribly cold to address the vivid suffering of living creatures with the abstractions of philosophy.  But if we don’t make the attempt we concede the argument to those who represent all basic research as a kind of Frankensteinish, curiosity-driven cruelty. And then the possibility of head transplants rescuing people from crippling diseases and pain goes from a distant improbability to an unthinkable impossibility which may seem to some like a small difference to some, but to me seems like a huge loss. I just wish I had bothered to explain that back then, in that classroom, to that troublesome boy.


Last edited: 4 March 2015 11:33