Six years ago, Wang Huanming was paralyzed from the neck down after being injured wrestling with a friend. Today, he hopes he has found the answer to walking again: a new body for his head.
Mr. Wang, a 62-year-old retired gas company worker, is one of several people in China who have volunteered for a body transplant at a hospital in the northern Chinese city of Harbin.
The idea for a body transplant is the kind of thinking that has experts around the world alarmed at how far China is pushing the ethical and practical limits of science. Such a transplant is impossible, at least for now, according to leading doctors and experts, including some in China, who point to the difficulty of connecting nerves in the spinal cord. Failure would mean the death of the patient.
The orthopedic surgeon proposing the operation, Dr. Ren Xiaoping of Harbin Medical University, who assisted in the first hand transplant in the United States in 1999, said he would not be deterred. In an interview, Dr. Ren said that he was building a team, that research was underway and that the operation would take place "when we are ready."
His plan: Remove two heads from two bodies, connect the blood vessels of the body of the deceased donor and the recipient head, insert a metal plate to stabilize the new neck, bathe the spinal cord nerve endings in a gluelike substance to aid regrowth and finally sew up the skin.
Whether or not he performs the operation, leading medical experts have condemned the plan.
"For most people, it's at best premature and at worst reckless," said Dr. James L. Bernat, a professor of neurology and medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine of Dartmouth College.
Dr. Huang Jiefu, a former deputy minister of health in China, said in an interview in November that when the spine is cut, the neurons "cannot be reconnected, so it's scientifically impossible."
"Ethically it's impossible," Dr. Huang added. "How can you put one person's head on another's body?"
Critics attribute such medical experimentation in China to national ambition, generous state funding, a utilitarian worldview that prioritizes results, and a lack of transparency and accountability to the outside world.
"The Chinese system is not transparent in any way," said Arthur L. Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University. "I do not trust Chinese bioethical deliberation or policy. Add healthy doses of politics, national pride and entrepreneurship, and it is tough to know what is going on."
Some Chinese researchers are also concerned that the experimentation is going too far, too fast.
"I don't want to see China's scholars, transplant doctors and scientists deepening the impression that people have of us internationally, that when Chinese people do things they have no bottom line — that anything goes," said Cong Yali, a medical ethicist at Peking University, referring to Dr. Ren's plans.
The Chinese government invested 1.42 trillion renminbi ($216 billion) in scientific research and development last year, compared with 245 billion renminbi in 2005, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
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Last year, researchers at Sun Yat-sen University, in the southern city of Guangzhou, altered a gene in the human embryo that causes thalassemia, a rare blood disease, using a technique developed in the United States. The experiment crossed an ethical line, some scientists in China and abroad said, because the changes would be inheritable if conducted on viable embryos. (The experiment used unviable embryos.) That could pave the way for permanent gene modification for qualities such as looks or intelligence.
Despite the concerns, in April another team in Guangzhou altered embryos to make them H.I.V. resistant. Internationally, some scientists criticized the experiment, citing a lack of consensus on the ethics of such work.
The team, from Guangzhou Medical University, said that "significant technical issues remain to be addressed." It added that on ethical grounds it would not advocate genome editing on viable lines "until after a rigorous and thorough evaluation and discussion are undertaken by the global research and ethics communities."