Full body transplants, placing a living head on a previously dead body, could happen within two years.

These are the claims of Italian doctor, Sergio Canavero, who claims the surgical procedures required to graft a living human head on to a donor body are almost possible. In an interview for New Scientist magazine, Canavero says that he is already preparing plans for the radical and controversial procedure and intends to build a team to explore the project's viability.

Canavero is aware there may be many ethical considerations, but claims the procedure could help prolong the lives of patients affected by terminal illnesses.

"If society doesn't want it, I won't do it. But if people don't want it in the US or Europe, that doesn't mean it won't be done somewhere else," he told the UK's leading Science journal.

Some of the ethical issues will concern patient's emotional rejection of the transplanted body, a problem which is common with the transplanting of limbs, but would place huge psychological stress on a patient who has received a whole donated body. It is also highly unlikely that any medical ethics authorities in either Europe or the US would allow the use of chimpanzees or other higher primates in developing the procedure.

Whilst most body parts, including complex ones such as the heart and lungs, are routinely transplanted, grafting a head on to a different body presents surgeons with addition problems.

In the 1970s, a team of American surgeons attempted the grafting of one monkey's head on to the body of another. However, the team were unable to connect the spinal column and no motor control of the limbs was possible. What physical movement a human patient would have below the neck is still unclear.

However, the history of transplant surgery suggests it will be only a matter of time before the first whole body transplant takes place.

Firsts in the history of transplant surgery:

  • 1954 Kidney transplant. Donor and recipient were twins, so organ rejection was not an issue
  • 1963 Liver transplant
  • 1967 Heart transplant by Dr Christiaan Barnard. Patient survived just 18 days
  • 1983 Single lung transplant
  • 1986 Double lung transplant
  • 2005 Face transplant. Isabel Dinoire, France, after being mauled by her dog whilst she slept.