Holy crap! A Harvard physicist thinks we might have just seen an alien spacecraft!

Holy crap! A Harvard physicist thinks we might have just seen an alien spacecraft!

A little over a year ago, on October 17, 2017, scientists at the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) in Hawaii made a incredible discovery – they saw an object moving through our solar system at over 196,000 miles per hour. Incredibly, the trajectory of this object indicated that it originated outside of our solar system, which made it the first ever interseller object observed in our solar system. The scientists named it ‘Oumuamua, which means “messenger from far away” in Hawaiian.

That’s super cool, but it gets even cooler. ‘Oumuamua demonstrated nongravitational acceleration, which means it sped up more then would be expected based on normal gravitational pull as it moved through our solar system. That’s intriguing, but it could be explained by off-gassing if ‘Oumuamua was a comet. However, ‘Oumuamua doesn’t seem to be a comet – it has no obvious tail of debris behind it, and no coma, which is a hazy cloud of material around the leading edge of the comet.   ‘Oumuamua’s shape is unusual too – it’s long and thin, which is kinda… weird.

The path of ‘Oumuamua through our solar system.

Now a new paper by the chair of the Harvard department of astronomy, Dr. Abrahman Loeb, suggests that maybe ‘Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft, or at least part of one. The author’s reasoning is based on solar wind. Solar wind is a stream of charged particles (mainly protons, electrons, and alpha particles) emitted by the upper atmosphere of the sun. Dr. Loeb hypothesizes that ‘Oumuamua may be solar sail, or at least part of a solar sail from a damaged craft. Acceleration from solar wind could explain the movement of ‘Oumuamua. A solar sail works much like a sail on a boat, except that the charged particles of the solar wind provides the kinetic engery to move the craft forward. In fact, such a concept has already been proven by three human-designed space craft: Japan’s IKAROS, NASA’s NanoSail D-2, and the non-profit Planetary Society’s LightSail. All of these crafts used solar sails to travel long distances across our solar system.

NASA’s Nanosail D-2

While ‘Oumuamua is long and thin, it would have to be really thin to work as a solar sale – less than 1 milimeter thick. Loeb and his postdoctoral co-author Shmual Bialy make the case that it would be possible for such a solar sail to survive the long journey from wherever it came from, and also that a coating of cosmic dust might make it less reflective than it really is.

Dr.’s Loeb & Bialy didn’t prove that ‘Oumuamua is an alien space craft – far from it. However, just the possibility is cool. We may never definitively know if ‘Oumuamua was of alien origin, especially since it is speeding out of our solar system as we speak. However, the prospect of being able to identify an alien spacecraft in the future means we should keep a close watch on the sky.


Unpacking the IPCC’s Climate Change Warning

Cover page for the IPCC’s report.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  released a startling report on October 6, 2018 that was a clarion call to the planet. The IPCC’s report warned that if the global temperatures increase by the formerly accepted 1.5 to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, the impacts will be far more devastating than previously projected. In December of 2015, the Paris Accord charged world leaders to keep the global average temperature increase well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Since before the industrial revolution, the global temperature has already increased by 0.8°C to 1.2°C, depending on the region.

We are already about halfway to the 2°C tipping mark.

What is the IPCC

The IPCC is a science-based, international body backed by the United Nations, put together to assess climate change science, inform, and advise governments about climate change issues. Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the panel is made up of volunteer scientists from all over the world.  91 authors from over 40 countries worked on the IPCC’s report, released from Incheon, South Korea. They reviewed and cited over 6000 peer reviewed journal articles related to climate change. The report reviews current climate change impacts at a 1°C increase from pre-industrial temperatures and assesses impacts should the temperature increase up to 1.5°C or 2°C from pre-industrial temperatures. The take-home message is that, while we are looking at significant impacts from a 1.5°C increase since pre-industrial times, we may have time to adapt and help more people, ecosystems, and organisms survive. In the case of a 2°C since pre-industrial times the outcomes appear to be much more severe.

This graph illustrating warming until now and potential warming paths is from the IPCC’s report.Potential Impacts at a 1.5°C Increase from Pre-Industrial Averages

The effects of climate change are notoriously hard to nail down because they are dependent on many factors. Risks are dependent on the rate, peak, and duration of the temperature increases. Effects will also be different for each region of the planet. For example, warming will be much more intense in the Arctic than in other areas. Increased droughts are expected to occur in dry areas, such as savannahs and grasslands, and coastal areas are expected to experience more flooding and loss of coastline. With that understanding, we know that there will be an increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather, including tornadoes, hurricanes, and droughts. We know that there will be heavier precipitation in many areas and precipitation deficits in other areas. We know that there will be an increase in temperatures – hot enough to kill people who can’t protect themselves from the heat. This will disproportionately affect poor people in developing nations and people living in the mid latitudes. We also expect more extreme cold events, particularly at night in the higher latitudes. We know that sea levels will rise and will continue to rise into the 22nd century. Sea level rise is in relation to arctic ice melt and marine ice instability. The raising of sea level will affect millions of miles of low laying coastal land as well as many small islands – some of which will be completely submerged.


(ALL INTERNAL, LIMITED EXTERNAL RIGHTS) May 2011. The flooded overflow banks from the Mississippi River in St. Francisville, LA. Photo credit: © David Y. Lee

Biodiversity and unique ecosystems will also be affected. For example, woody shrubs from boreal forests are expected to encroach into tundra area, setting off an ecological chain that will result in degradation of the current ecosystems, much to the detriment of the organisms that live there. Many of our foods, medicines and other products come from animals and plants in these sensitive ecosystems. They provide a barrier against erosion, desertification, and natural disasters. Loss of biodiversity as well as changes in the ecosystems they live in can affect the distribution of pathogenic microbes and disease.  Forests are carbon dioxide sinks, sequestering (absorbing) CO2 from the atmosphere, naturally. Many of these unique ecosystems and much of our vitally important biodiversity will be lost because of climate change, however, these losses will be much less severe at a 1.5°C temperature increase than at a 2°C from pre-industrial temperatures. An example of this is the decimation of the coral reefs. At a 1.5°C increase we expect a 70-90% loss, but at a 2°C increase we expect a 99% loss.


Illustration of cascade effects of climate change, From http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/12/1/01030

These impacts will trickle down to affect our health, and many of our economies and industries. In many cases, warming temperatures will cause flora and fauna to move towards the higher, cooler latitudes. One concerning example of this is the migration of mosquitoes carrying the pathogens responsible for malaria and dengue fever to more favorable habitats. This will change the distribution of these diseases, bringing them into areas that previously didn’t have them, or haven’t had them for a very long time.  (Malaria, for example, used to be common  as far north as Montana and New York, and was spread as far west as the Rocky Mountains.)  Impacts from climate change will also affect our water and food security (the availability of water and food), crops, and other food industries. One model predicted that the marine fishing industry is expected to experience a decrease in the global annual catch of 1.5 million tons at a 1.5°C increase. That loss will be 3 million tons at a 2°C increase in 2006, the global annual catch was 92 million tons. This loss may seem small, but it can affect the price of wild caught fish in the United States.


From the IPCC Report.

Enough doom and gloom, though….


How do we Fix This?

The global average temperature has already increased by 1°C over pre-industrial temperatures and is expected to increase 0.2°C per decade from the greenhouse gasses we are currently emitting. This 0.2°C increase per decade can be expected to continue for, potentially, millennia to come. Does this mean that there is not much we can do about it, so we should just ride it out? Absolutely not. The IPCC report advises that reaching and maintaining zero human caused greenhouse gas emissions (particularly carbon dioxide) globally would stop global warming on “multi-decade timescales”. The report urges world leaders to cut carbon dioxide emissions 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.   Meeting this carbon goal will require rapid and wide-spread changes in many areas, including energy and land use, design urban and built environments, infrastructure (including transportation), and the industrial manufacturing sector.


Recommended Adaptations:

In Energy – lower energy consumption, increased energy efficiency, faster electrification of energy, Use of renewable energy sources.

In Land Use – sustainable intensification of land use practices, restoration of eco-systems, dietary changes toward less resource-intensive diets (such as consumption of insects). In simple language, we need more tree areas and less cleared land, fewer water intensive crops, and less land acres used for grazing.

From https://www.thrillist.com/home/most-sustainable-buildings-around-the-world-best-green-architecture

In Urban Areas and Infrastructure – energy efficient homes and buildings (here’s examples of green architecture), more green spaces, better roads, more and better mass transit, bicycle paths, and electric or hybrid vehicles. We will also need to find new ways to acquire water, such as better desalinization techniques, and better waste treatment technologies.

In the Industrial Sector – use of sustainable based bio-fuels, electrification, hydrogen, product substitution (using more sustainable products in the place of energy inefficient products), hydrogen, and Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS).

Research and Development – To accomplish this, there will also need to be funding for research leading to energy efficiency, clean technology, and environmental and biological sciences. While there are some technologies that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere, they are still experimental, only work on a small scale, and are expensive to use. To accomplish the recommended goals, we will certainly need to improve CO2 removal technologies.

Though these tasks seem daunting, they also represent economic opportunities: The development of new technologies and the improvement of our infrastructure and the built environment would create millions of new jobs, companies, and, conceivably, fortunes.


From https://www.bustle.com/articles/105138-11-hilarious-climate-change-memes-to-quiet-the-naysayers-who-keep-denying-its-real

What Can YOU Do?

It is also important to consider that though much of the recommended adaptations should be enacted by large corporations and governmental bodies, it’s not just up to them. Most of us are not climate scientists. We aren’t politicians and we aren’t big oil, coal, or industry. We may feel like we have no stake in this situation, but we do. The IPCC’s report makes it clear that every living, breathing thing on this planet has a stake in what happens next. This is a conversation that we must be having in every living room in the country. We need to spend our money wisely and vote with our dollars (I know it’s trite, but it’s true) and our, uh, votes. We need to make decisions that support sustainability, and proactive conservation even in our homes. We need to vote for leaders who will fight for clean, safe, and renewable energy, smart city planning, sustainable industrial practices, and funding for research. In the United States, ultimately, we can make a difference. If our system isn’t part of the solution, we can change it. Climate crisis isn’t a far-off future probability. It’s starting now and it’s time for us to remember who we are. We explored the planet and built the pyramids. We split the atom and achieved flight. We visited the moon and have mapped the galaxy. Surely with our collective passion and intelligence we will find a way to slow the warming of our planet.


A new picture of climate change at the poles, 12 photons at a time.

A new picture of climate change at the poles, 12 photons at a time.

I’ve been following NASA’s ICESat-2 mission with great interest.  Why?  Maybe because I like words that start with three capital letters.  Maybe because it’s going to make the best, most precise measurements of how the Earth’s ice sheets are changing, that anyone has ever made.  Maybe for no reason at all.

ICESat-2 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base a couple of weeks ago, into a near-polar orbit that will fly almost, but not quite, over the North and South poles every 90 minutes for the next 3-7 years.  It’s carrying one instrument, which is a laser altimeter—a powerful laser that sends out ultra-short pulses of light, then measures how long they take to bounce off the Earth and come back.  Using some mind-boggling optics, ICESat-2 will be able to measure the height of the Earth’s surface using only 12 photons out of the trillions it sends out from each pulse.  This sounds crazy, but because it does this ten thousand times every second, it will be able to put together very accurate measurements of the height of the surface.  On a clear day, ICESat-2’s measurements will be precise to something like the width of a cucumber (that’s a 40-meter long cucumber, because it needs to combine lots of measurements to be that precise.  If you find one of those, send us a picture). The plan for the mission is to have ICESat-2 make these measurements on the same paths across the ice sheets over and over again, so that when glaciers get thinner or thicker, ICESat-2 will measure those changes.

Continue reading…    

Stem Cells – Fact and Fiction

Stem Cells – Fact and Fiction

By Alexis Wormington

Stem cell research has been a hot topic for years, and is a hugely promising field in medical research. But what exactly are stem cells, and why do we care so much about them?

Put simply, stem cells are the cellular equivalent of a college freshman – they haven’t quite decided what they want to be when they grow up. While this uncertainty may be distressing for the average adolescent, in the case of stem cells, the lack of a niche functional role is actually a good thing. During development, our body forms hundreds of different cell types that come together to produce our essential organ systems, and many of these cell types are highly specialized (such as neurons). This process is called cell differentiation, and for the most part, it’s irreversible – meaning that once a cell develops into a specific cell type, it stays that cell type for good. For example, a blood cell cannot become a neuron, and vice versa. Though this differentiation process is incredibly important for proper development and body function, in can be a bit of a problem for those tissues that don’t naturally regenerate. This is where stem cells come in.


Specialization Capacity Biological Location


Any cell Embryonic tissue


Almost any cell Embryonic tissue
Multipotent Cell types within the same family

Adult body tissues

Oligopotent A limited number of related cell types

Adult body tissues

Unipotent One cell type, but can self-renew

Adult body tissues

Stem cells are defined by their potency, or their degree of specialization. The more potent a stem cell is, the more cell types it can turn into. The most potent stem cells are those found in embryonic tissue – these cells are totipotent and can differentiate into any type of cell. Theoretically, totipotent stem cells can build a complete, viable organism. More commonly; however, embryonic stem cells are pluripotent (can become almost type of cell), and these stem cells are the ones used most commonly for research.

With the table above in mind, one can see that stem cells are not only found in embryonic tissue. Though totipotent and pluripotent cells are essential for fetal development, stem cells of lesser potency are maintained and utilized by our bodies throughout our adult lives. Unlike nerve and muscle cells, stem cells can replicate themselves, and are thus used to regenerate body cells as they die or become damaged (depending on the tissue). For example, since the skin acts as the primary barrier between us and the external en

vironment, our skin cells are constantly regenerating – which would not be possible without the army of adult stem cells that hang out in the epidermis. The same principle applies to muscle and liver tissues, which also require a high degree of regeneration.

A diagram of stem cells, relating the hierarchy of stem cell differentiation from totipotent embryonic stem cells to fully differentiated cells
Figure 1: General differentiation process of totipotent stem cells in humans. (From: http://www.cell-transfection.com/home-2/stable-cell-lines/stem-cells/)

Scientists can do a lot with stem cells. The best thing about these cells is that they are easily modified and manipulated. This has applications for genetic research, as stem cells readily undergo genetic modification, which allows geneticists to learn more about gene function as well as discover new genes. Observing stem cell differentiation has also provided researchers with important insights into mammalian development, something that provides us with valuable information about the formation of developmental diseases. Lastly, a major area of interest within the field of stem cell research is the optimization of stem cell therapy, or the use of induced or cultured stem cells to treat a disease or condition, such as sickle-cell anemia (see Figure 2). A bone marrow transplant, used to treat diseases like leukemia and aplastic anemia, is an example of stem cell therapy.

Diagram of process of treating mouse with stem cell therapy to treat sickle cell anemia
Figure 2: A schematic showing the treatment of sickle-cell anemia in a mouse model using induced pluripotent stem cells. (From: http://wi.mit.edu/news/archive/2007/reprogrammed-adult-cells-treat-sickle-cell-anemia-mice)

Within the context of groundbreaking medical research, stem cells are a resource of potentially endless possibilities. Possibly the most engaging prospect is using stem cells to grow new organs, as many fatal or life-altering diseases are caused by the degeneration of essential tissues or cells. Currently, patients in need of an organ transplant have a lot of hoops to jump through: 1) they must qualify for a transplant; 2) wait on a list with other transplant patients to receive a compatible organ (which can take several years); and 3) take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent organ rejection, which can occur no matter how compatible the organ is. With stem cells, researchers can theoretically grow new organs from a patient’s own cells, so that the replacement organ would not only be genetically identical, but would also be available to the patient much more quickly. However, a functional organ requires a lot more than a few pluripotent stem cells; scientists haven’t figured out how to effectively grow organs yet, but they’re getting close.

Though stem cells present a promising prospect for the treatment of some diseases and conditions, these cells are not magic and can’t cure everything. Several types of stem cell “therapies” are not FDA approved and are still undergoing clinical trials – this is an extremely important fact to remember, as numerous unregulated stem cell clinics touting unproven stem cell treatments have emerged around the globe. These clinics can be very dangerous: just ask the three women who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell therapy to treat their macular degeneration. Additionally, a recent study found that cardiac stem cell therapy actually worsened heart disease in mice, suggesting that, as far as using stem cells to treat heart problems, more research is required. One paper, published in Operative Techniques in Orthopaedics in 2016, sums up the state of stem cell research perfectly: Although the science of stem cells may seem fairly straightforward in homogenous extraction of autologous stem cells and reinjection or implantation into the specific injury site, controlling the fate and function of stem cells remains immensely challenging. With that in mind, it may be best to think twice before paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for an unproven stem cell therapy.

There’s no denying that stem cell research is exciting, and as researchers work to understand how these cells divide and differentiate, we’ll know more about the extent of their applications in the fields of medicine, genetics, and biology. Though it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype, try to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding stem cells, and keep an eye on the field as it develops and advances.

Why did it take so long to ban Infowars from social media?

Why did it take so long to ban Infowars from social media?

If you read the news regularly, you’ve probably heard that Alex Jones and his company, Infowars have recently been banished from social media – specifically Facebook, Youtube, Spotify, Vimeo, and others. Pretty much everyone other than Twitter (which gave him a timeout) has pulled the controversial conspiracy theorist from their platforms. The reason for this was ostensibly his repeated violation of policies against hate speech and inciting violence – activities that Jones and Infowars have gleefully been engaged in for years.

But while hate speech and incitement of violence are undoubtedly awful, it seems like social media platforms are overlooking – or perhaps just ok with – the batshit insane list of anti-science conspiracy theories Jones and Infowars have been promoting for years. So while the rational world celebrates the small victory of removing a voice of hate from the social media (if only for now), let’s also reflect on the impact Jones and Infowars has had on the propagation of science-related misinformation over the years.

Jones has frequently suggested that fluoridation of water is a government plot to poison us and control our minds – a ridiculous and all too common conspiracy theory. He also supports the disproven theory that vaccines cause autism, and advocates against life-saving vaccinations. From there it only gets weirder. Jones has suggested repeatedly that the US government has machines that can create tornadoes, and bombs that can turn people gay. According to Jones, the government is also trying to poison us using chemtrails, a theory so insane it seems to require a break from reality. Together with “Big Pharma,” the government has also turned frogs gay and created HIV, according to Jones. And if Jones is to be believed, Bill Gates, whose foundation has spent almost 70 million dollars to develop cures for neglected tropic diseases, is running a eugenics effort.

It may surprise you to know that Jones probably makes most of his money selling dubious health supplements. He spends a considerable amount of his air time on Infowars giving health advice and promoting his dietary supplements. He claims to have pills that will boost your “vitality,” just like an old-timey snake oil salesman. Naturally, Infowars sells a fluoride-free toothpaste for those who don’t want their mind controlled by the government. My favorite Infowars supplement, however, is the Survival Shield. Third parties have tested it, and it contains only iodine, an important element you can literally get by putting salt on your fries. Yet Inforwars describes it like it’s the most advanced supplement ever invented:

“Derived from ancient sea salts found more than 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface, the evolution of Survival Shield is here and much stronger than our original formula.* Every drop contains 650 micrograms to keep you in prime form. 

Feel the relief and strength of the next step in proprietary nascent iodine, developed using our Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology that allows for a highly unique and powerful nascent iodine that is both concentrated, and free of unwanted additives and genetically modified ingredients to make sure that your organic nascent iodine supplements are the best for your body.  During our quality control phase, we screen for any harmful additives – even up to radiation.”

I have so many questions!!!! How did Jones GET 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface? Does he own a Dr. Evil-style giant drill? Is he the first person to ever use the words “nascent” and “iodine” consecutively, and why? How could you “add” radiation to something? How do you genetically modify iodine? Then there’s the term “Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology” – a masterclass in pseudoscience technobabble – it sounds cool, while actually meaning nothing. Jones might be the greatest snake oil salesman ever.

Can this get 7,000 feet into the earth?

Jones and Infowars even went so far as to make up a nonexistent fungal epidemic – one they conveniently have the cure for! Two bottles of the stuff will cost you about $100.

It’s easy for rational people to make fun of this kind of tomfoolery, but we need to remember that Infowars has been around since 1999. They are still on the radio today, and their website is active. While I’d like to think we live in a world in which the majority of people who hear his crazy claims think of them as entertainment only, I don’t think we can be naive enough to believe this. Millions of people visit the Infowars site every year, and they sell a lot of useless supplements.

Infowars was rightly pulled off of the air for hate speech against victims of unspeakable tragedies. This is a victory for everyone concerned about the impact of “fake news” on our society. However, we have a long way to go in this regard. Sites like this still makes millions of dollars promoting anti-science theories that can be easily disproved, and by selling supplements that provide no health benefits at all. We can’t ban sites from social media just for lying to make a buck – but we can educate our friends and family and spread the word of science. Maybe someday, Jones will run out of people to take advantage of.

Ask a Scientist: Did the EPA Really Change Their View on Asbestos?

Ask a Scientist: Did the EPA Really Change Their View on Asbestos?

Welcome to Ask a Scientist, where we answer questions from our readers on a wide range of scientific topics. Got a scientific question? Drop us a line.

Q: I saw an article that the EPA recently changed their view on asbestos and also made it easier for companies to get asbestos-containing products approved. Is that true? How dangerous is asbestos? – AD, Hamden, CT

Thanks for the question, AD. Here’s the deal:

Asbestos is really, really dangerous. When you go to toxicology school (yes, that exists), one of the model chemicals they teach you about is asbestos. We know asbestos causes cancer, and we even know how it causes cancer. Read our talc post here for an earlier description of the mechanisms of asbestos toxicity. There is no scientific debate about the relationship between asbestos and cancer – asbestos is nasty stuff, and you don’t want to be breathing it in. Asbestos was briefly banned in the US in the late 80’s, but came back on the market in a very limited number of products in 1991 thanks to lawsuits by manufacturers. All new uses have remained banned. These companies argued (correctly) that as long as the asbestos in asbestos-containing products is not broken up into dust (technically, fibers) which can be inhaled, it’s use is safe. This is technically true for the people using asbestos products. However, in order to make these products people need to be around raw asbestos, and that can be dangerous if you don’t take your protective equipment very seriously. 55 countries have banned asbestos outright, and most developed countries no longer allow it to be mined.

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The Science Behind Tattooing

Once the social symbol of sailors and jail-hardened individuals, tattoos have surged in popularity among the global youth, with around 40% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 sporting some ink. Tattoo artists spend years training and a lifetime honing their craft, often specializing in one of many forms of skin-based expression ranging anywhere from portraits to calligraphy to watercolor. Whether you’re a fan of the “I-Love-Mom” classics or elaborate Monet-esque mosaics, the practice of tattooing seems almost magical in nature – and like many other tattoo-lovers out there, you’ve probably found yourself wondering: how in the world do tattoos even work?

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The Ethically Hazy, Scientifically Controversial Potential of Head Transplantation Surgery

The Ethically Hazy, Scientifically Controversial Potential of Head Transplantation Surgery

In a somewhat creepy presentation, Italian neuro-surgeon, Dr Sergio Canavero announced at a TED event in 2015 that he would soon successfully transplant a live human head onto a donor body. While watching the video, I noticed that TED flagged the talk as not conforming to their guidelines and they note that his talk is speculative and ethically questionable. Canavero described how he partnered with Dr Xiaoping Ren of China and Canavero told the South China Morning Post in November of 2017 that, “Western bioethicists needed to stop patronizing the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to restore China to greatness.” Contrarily, in another article published days later, a senior health official in China asserts that this procedure is not legal, will not happen and is a publicity stunt. However, Canavero and Ren have found a Guinea pig (pardon the term) in Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, also called Spinal Muscle Atrophy Disorder, is a autosomal recessive neuro-muscular disease that usually results in paralysis. Spiridonov, 31, is wheelchair-bound and reports a very low life quality. He has agreed to the head transplant surgery, no matter the outcome.

Image from:http://www.businessinsider.com/head-transplant-surgeon-frankenstein-2017-7

Why are Head Transplants So Darned Hard?

Head transplantation has been considered impossible for many reasons. The first reason is that severing the spinal cord, and then repairing it almost never works. Past attempts with animals typically ended with a paralyzed monkey, mouse or dog. Dr. Canavero argued that he could minimize damage to the cord by using a super-sharp diamond blade to cut the cord. He also claims that he can reconnect the severed cord using a chemical called polyethylene glycol (PEG) and electrical stimulation. Canavero claims that PEG accelerates spinal regeneration and is calling it a “fusogen.” Canavero has insisted that this technique has worked on animals, but there has yet to be any accepted evidence of his claims in peer-reviewed literature.

Image from: https://www.canihelpyouonline.com/the-worlds-first-successful-head-transplant-surgery/

Keeping the brain alive long enough to connect it to the new body (read: blood source) is also very difficult. The brain will degrade beyond repair in minutes without a blood source. Canavero claims to use a combination of cryogenics and silicone tubing to solve this problem. Again, this is a claim for which little evidence has been presented.

After a transplant surgery, the patient’s immune system will often reject and attack implanted foreign tissue, which is the third major problem for a head transplantation: How does the surgeon keep the donor body’s immune system from rejecting the new head? Transplant patients struggle with this problem even with the most common kinds of transplant surgeries but Canavera says that he has conquered this problem in the same way we battle immune rejection in heart or kidney transplant patients – with a cocktail of immune suppressant drugs.

Is it Ethical to Cut Off a Person’s Head and Sew it on to Another Person’s Body?

Image from: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/qkv5m3/reasons-to-take-a-human-head-transplant-seriously-these-mice

In the industry of scientific research, the scientific method is the primary way in which research moves from hypothesis to accepted theory. In a situation like Canavero’s research, a responsible researcher would start with a moderately large sample size of small rodents, such as mice. Canavero says he has performed the surgery on mice. It is uncertain whether or not the surgeries were successful, or how one might even define success in this case. He would perform the experimental procedure, document it in a legitimate scientific publication and subject it to peer review. examine the article and determine if the research is acceptable. Once peer review was established, Canavero might move on to larger animals, probably dogs (yes, I know it’s awful, but that’s another article) and repeat the process. After that work had been accepted, he might move on to non-human primates (monkeys). After monkeys, a responsible researcher might then move on to a human cadaver.

When a researcher is writing these articles, they should include excruciatingly detailed descriptions of their methods along with well-documented explanations of the results. Canavero and his colleagues have not done this. The articles he has published mention methods minimally, if at all. He does assert that the work was “successful,” without much of an explanation of what “successful” means in objective terms. Neurologists around the world have expressed a variety of sentiments about his research, from mere skepticism to stern disapproval. There is no legitimate ethics board that would approve this procedure, considering the lack of evidence and the ethical considerations. Dr James Fildes, NHS principal research scientist at the University Hospital of South Manchester’s Transplant Centre, said: “Unless Canavero or Ren provide real evidence that they can perform a head, or more appropriately, a whole-body transplant on a large animal that recovers sufficient function to improve quality of life, this entire project is morally wrong.”

So, Just What are (some of) Those Ethical Quandaries?

Consideration 1 – Dr Canavero has announced in several venues that his plan is to use head transplantation to help those who can pay for it to achieve immortality. He sees a world in which rich people can buy a new, younger, healthier body, thus live forever. The two procedures central to the research are the GEMINI Spinal Cord Fusion protocol and HEAVEN (Head Anastomosis Venture Project). This is an ethical argument that could fill books. Is immortality ethical, or even sustainable? Is it fair that this would be an option for only the very wealthy? It sort of reminds me of Elysium.

Image from: https://www.healththoroughfare.com/science/the-first-head-transplant-in-the-world-might-be-more-than-90-successful/7432
Dr. Canavero and a head. I couldn’t say what he is doing with it.

Consideration 2 – In order to do a head transplant, a corpse with an appropriate body needs to be available. According to Organdonor.gov, 20 people die every day waiting for an organ to become available. At a time when wait list for donated organs are months or even years long, how will we handle the supply/demand problem for whole bodies? Is it realistic to donate an entire body for an iffy procedure when those organs can save as many as 8 people on organ donor waiting lists? If were talking about future immortality and wealthy people can live forever, who donates their body? The poor? Prisoners? Clones? It would take another book to even touch on the cloning ethics problems.

Consideration 3 – What kind of hellish scenario would it be for a live human if the head is rejected by the immune system? Currently, the most commonly transplanted organ is the kidney, though we can transplant hearts, lungs, faces, hands, arteries, penises, uteruses, and many other organs with a high likelihood of success. Tissues without a vascular system, such as tendons, cornea, or skin have a much smaller risk of rejection, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC). Despite the low likelihood of rejection, it still happens. A head transplant is vastly more complex than any kind of transplant we do currently. Transplantation of organs are typically followed by years of anti-rejection drugs designed to suppress the immune system. This raises the risk of the patient catching an infection that they can’t fight off. The CDC also reports that there is a risk of the transplanted organ having an undetected infection, such as HIV/AIDS, or Hepatitis.

Imge from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/933920/Head-transplant-sergio-canavero-Valery-Spiridonov-Werdnig-Hoffmann-disease
Is this a successful head transplant? These two don’t look so good.

Consideration 4 – Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “biochemical differences between the head and the donor body, the person would probably never be able to regain normal consciousness.  “It’s not like putting a light bulb into a new socket,” Caplan said. “If you move the head and the brain, you are putting it into a new chemical environment with new neurological input. I think it would drive the person crazy before they died.” It makes you wonder, how will all of those other person’s hormones and other chemicals change the new brain?

Consideration 5 – To whom will the new combination-body belong? Does the recovering patient become the head or the body? There will be 2 different sets of DNA at play, one from the head, and one from the body. What about identity? While the newly recovering patient has one person’s head, they have another person’s finger prints. What happens to the body’s property, debt, spouse, children? What about the heads personal and legal belongings and family?

This may seem obvious if you think the center of our consciousness is in our brain, but research shows that may not be the case. Much of our behavior and feelings are influenced by our hormones, gut microbiome, and other factors. The enteric nervous system, located in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, is the largest nerve bundle second to the brain, and for this reason the ENS is sometimes called the “second brain.” 95% of our serotonin is found in the ENS. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps reduce depression and anxiety, referred to commonly as a happiness chemical. We don’t know enough about how consciousness, personality, and our feelings really work. We don’t know enough about the ENS or the human microbiome yet to determine where the seat of consciousness is located.

Image from: http://reillytop10.com/previous-lists/2016-list/head-transplants/

What Do You Think?

In a situation like Spiridonov’s, suffering from Spinal Atrophy Disease, I can see why he might risk death or worse for a chance for a better life. Canavero’s arrogant, self-assured attitude and flashy, circus-like handling of his work would seem to convince a vulnerable person that this procedure was indeed not only possible but inevitable. On the other hand, if a head transplant is possible it represents hope to people with conditions that limit their quality of life. Is it ethical to deny them the procedure because of its Frankenstein-esque qualities?  After all, any new surgery might have seemed pretty morbid and risky at one time. Let us know what you think in the comments!