Can Medicine Outsmart Death?

From a far-fetched head transplant surgery to technology for cooling organs; death-defying medical treatments are billionaires’ new plaything.

04.14.15 4:20 PM ET

In the words of Queen: Who wants to live forever? Well, as it turns out, a whole lot of us. New death-defying medical treatments are becoming big business for private investors, with millions on offer for those who can help stave off the afterlife.

The most recent example of this comes in the form of Valery Spiridonov: a man who has volunteered himself for the world’s first head transplant. Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Russia, suffers from a Werdnig Hoffman syndrome—a fatal muscle-wasting disease. He contacted maverick Italian doctor Sergio Canavero after hearing of his plans to perform the world’s first full body transplant, volunteering himself for the procedure.

“I’m very interested in technology, and anything progressive that might change people’s lives for the better,” he told RT. “Doing this isn’t only an excellent opportunity for me, but will also create a scientific basis for future generations, no matter what the actual outcome of the surgery is.”

The procedure, which Dr. Canavero claims he will perform within the next two years, would reportedly cost $11 million, require a team of 150 medical professionals and take 36 hours to complete. The process —termed HEAVEN (head anastomosis venture)—would involve cutting through the neck and spinal cord while linking the blood vessels to ensure minimal damage. The brain would then be cooled at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit, extending its ability to stay alive without oxygen, before it would be moved onto the donor’s body.

Canavero believes that polyethylene glycol—a kind of glue for the spinal cord—will be able it to fuse together with the head, allowing the patient to enter into a medically induced coma for three to four weeks, giving the head ample time to adjust. He maintains that, upon waking, the patient would be able to feel their face and speak, but that it would take a year of physiotherapy before moving the body would be possible.

Experts are, understandably, mocking the idea. “There’s no way he’s going to hook up somebody’s brain to someone’s spinal cord and have them be functional,” Dr. Chad Gordon, professor of neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed. “On the conservative side, we’re about 100 years away from being able to figure this out.”

Outside of the improbability of its success, the procedure makes for an ethical minefield. But if a doctor could dream up an operation like this one, there’s no telling what death hacks are in the pipeline. If a successful, life-extending surgery does arise—and prove successful—its implications would be revolutionary. After announcing his intentions to carry out the procedure several months ago, Canavero was inundated with volunteers offering themselves up for the project—a testament to how prevalent the notion of extending one’s life really is.

Canavero’s ideology is one keenly shared by Silicon Valley hedge fund manager, Joon Yun, founder of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. A $1 million reward for those who can successfully “hack the code of life and cure aging,” Yun is hoping to find scientists able to extend the lives of mice by 50 percent, which he believes will be demonstrative in efforts to push the human life span beyond its current U.S. average of 78.7 years.

While Yun’s efforts might resemble a Death Becomes Her-esque bid to uncover an elixir of eternal youth, he is not the first wealthy businessman to make a serious financial donation to the prevention of aging. Peter Thiel, one of PayPal’s co-founders, has donated millions to researchers leading the charge, while Larry Ellison, who co-founded computer hardware company Oracle, has given some $430 million to the cause. “Death has never made any sense to me,” says Ellison.

The government used to fund two-thirds of medical research, with private backers accounting for the other 33 percent of studies, but that ratio has now been flipped, with the major cash injections supplied by entrepreneurs with life-prolonging pet projects far surpassing money pumped in by the state. Some of the ideas being explored by Thiel-backed researchers include technology that can cool human organs at a high speed, allowing them to be preserved long term, and using stem cells to grow bone replacements for broken ones. One more involves analyzing molecular and cell damage throughout our lifetimes in a bid to better understand how we might rejuvenate deteriorating bodies.

Cynthia Kenyon—a celebrated molecular biologist and recent addition to Calico, Google’s research and development anti-aging venture—cites the death-delaying tactics of animals as possible inspiration for human longevity. “If an animal sees a threat, it responds,” she told The Washington Post. “What’s really cool about this is that the mechanisms that protect it from danger can also protect it from the ravages of time itself. What if you could fool an animal into thinking there is a threat when there really isn’t?”

Biochemist Craig Venter, too, is part of the search for an endless existence. His company Human Longevity Inc.—a joint project with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis—was set up last year with the goal of charting 1 million human genome sequences: a huge data project he believes will elucidate what makes for a longer life.

Though any key developments in the field are likely to be a long way off, the parameters of this research are broadening apace. And, with tech billionaires so eager to foot the medical bill of the future, dreams of life at three figures may not be so wild after all.