Controversial Turin doctor Sergio Canavero argues that mind-boggling ‘full body’ transplants could save the lives of people with terminal illnesses including cancer, and says the pioneering procedure could become a reality in just two years.

Canavero – whose proposals have been met with scepticism by many of his peers – will officially announce the project at a conference for neurological surgeons in Maryland this June.

“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 New Scientist magazine. “I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon you want to make sure people will follow you.”

The surgery would involve cooling down the transplant recipient’s head and the donor body to prolong the time their cells could survive without oxygen during the operation. Tissues around the neck would be dissected and major blood vessels linked using tiny tubes. The spinal cords would then be cleanly severed and the recipient’s head moved on to the donor body.

Canavero believes it would then be possible to fuse together the spinal nerves using a substance called polyethylene glycol. This would be crucial in enabling the recipient’s brain to the donor’s body. However, were this possible one might already expect people paralysed by spinal injuries to have surgery to enable them to walk again.

After the transplant procedure the recipient would  be put into a coma for around four weeks during the healing process. Canavero believes the person would wake up with the same voice and would be able to feel their face, and that they would learn to walk within a year. He says several people have already volunteered to get a new body.

The Guardian points out that aside from the technical issues of removing a living person’s head, attaching it to a dead body, reviving the reconstructed person and retraining their brain to use thousands of unfamiliar spinal cord nerves, the ethics of the procedure are problematic. It is not unusual for transplant patients to dislike their new attachments and want them removed. It is also unlikely that medical ethics boards would approve experiments involving monkeys or other primates.

“This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely,” Harry Goldsmith, professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, in Davis, told the New Scientist.