Professor Tran Dong A has voiced his concerns over the possibility of a head transplant in Vietnam and the reality of such groundbreaking surgery if it were to be carried out in the Southeast Asian country during a recent interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

The respected pediatrician was the head surgeon in charge of a landmark surgery in 1988 to separate Viet and Duc, two young ischiopagus tripus conjoined twins attached at the pelvis.

The grueling 15-hour surgery was a resounding success, giving the two boys much-coveted independence, although it resulted in Viet ending up in a virtually vegetative state. He passed away in late 2007 at age 26.

His twin brother, Duc, has fared considerably better.

Though Duc has only one leg and must walk with crutches, he has grown up to be a healthy, productive man who is now married with twins of his own.

Feasible initiative

Vietnam-Germany Hospital, considered Vietnam’s largest surgical center, is looking for disabled people whose bodies are paralyzed but brains remain active and are willing to undergo the milestone head transplant surgery, deputy director Trinh Hong Son told a seminar in January 2016.

The active brain will be transplanted into the body of another brain dead patient, the doctor further explained.

Once the world begins performing such an operation and a Vietnamese volunteer is found, it is possible that Vietnam-Germany Hospital, located in Hanoi, will invite an international doctor team to do the scientifically possible human head transplant, Dr. Son asserted.

In June 2015, Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero unveiled plans to perform the first human head transplant, saying he believes he has a 90 percent chance of success, according to Reuters.

A 30-year-old Russian man, Valery Spiridonov, who has a degenerative muscle condition known as Werdnig-Hoffman, has volunteered to be the first person to undergo a head transplant.

Dr. Canavero’s operation will be ready to go as early as Christmas 2017, according to The Guardian.

Prof. A is positive that such a trailblazing surgical procedure would be a success, given that transplants of vital organs including the heart, kidneys, liver, eyes, face and penis have all been carried out successfully.

“The crucial phase during such an exacting surgery is cutting and grafting marrow. One wrong surgical move can mean a lack of sophisticated coordinative movements of the mind and body,” he underlined.

Foreign scientists have performed the surgery on around 1,000 mice, but only one managed to survive a few days.

Prof. A pointed out the head donor and recipient are supposed to have the same gender and blood type and similar stature.

“It’s also essential that the two marrow ends match perfectly,” he said.

As the surgery is likely to put the head of a Russian man onto the body of a brain-dead Chinese person, Prof. A, however, did not find racial differences interfering elements.

Jean Bernard Otte, a renowned expert in pediatric liver transplants across Europe, is the first surgeon in the world to adopt the ‘splitting’ technique; successfully transferring the liver of a Caucasian adult to three children, two of whom are Asian and African.

Otte was instrumental in the success of the first-ever transplants conducted by Ho Chi Minh City-based Children’s Hospital 2, where Prof. A was deputy director.

Head transplant in Vietnam: untimely plan

Prof. A dismissed reports circulating that a head transplant would be carried out in Vietnam as early as 2017 as ‘ambiguous.’

The 75-year-old doctor stressed that despite vocal opposition, there would be nothing legally or ethically wrong about such a transplant as long as the recipient and brain-dead donor or their family gave their consent.

“The surgical treatment should not encounter any legal or ethical issues in Vietnam, as a head transplant is just another organ transfer procedure,” Prof. A noted.

“However, such a surgery is out of the question right now considering how daunting the surgical and post-surgery care challenges are,” he noted.

“The foreign surgical team is unlikely to stay for a long time in Vietnam after the surgery to tend to the recuperating patient, who will need to be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of their life.”

The seasoned doctor pointed out the painstaking, years-long care and monitoring devoted to Viet following the landmark conjoined twin separation surgery 28 years ago as an example.

He added that in Europe, EuroTransplant, an international collaborative framework responsible for the allocation of donor organs in many countries, allows professional, timely transport of donated organs from one country to another.

Such an organization has yet to be established in Asia.

The ability to remove organs from brain-dead donors remains in its infancy in Vietnam, Prof. A explained.

“Recently a brain-dead donor in Ho Chi Minh City had to be transported in a commercial plane over 2,000 kilometers to Hanoi, which considerably reduced ‘golden time’,” he said.

“Time is of the essence, as the sooner the donated organs are put into the recipient’s body, the higher the chances of success are.

“For now, Vietnamese hospitals are in no position to conduct such a challenging surgery as a head transplant, nor can they ensure its long-term results.”

Tuoi Tre News - March 3, 2016