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(From WSJ June 6, 2015)

HARBIN, China— Xiaoping Ren stood up after 10 hours hunched over an operating table and looked proudly at his patient, a small black mouse with a new brown head.

When he took a ventilator off the tiny creature’s throat, the head began breathing spontaneously with its new body. An hour later, the body twitched, and, a few hours after that, the mouse opened its eyes, Dr. Ren recalls.

Since the July 2013 operation, he and his team at Harbin Medical University have done operations on nearly 1,000 more mice, testing various ways to help them survive longer than their record so far of one day after the surgery. A peer-reviewed international journal, CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, published the team’s work in December.

Head transplants, at the extreme frontier of medicine, are inching toward reality. Dr. Ren plans to turn his surgical skills to monkeys this summer, hoping to create the first head-transplanted primate that can live and breathe on its own, at least for a little while.

If a breakthrough in this futuristic work comes, China might be where it happens. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese government has been pouring money into scientific research, especially projects that are potentially high-impact or groundbreaking. China’s investment in science and technology rose to 18% of the world’s total research-and-development spending last year, from 10% in 2009, according to the Battelle Memorial Institute.

“China right now, they want to go to the top,” said Dr. Ren. “If you think there’s a really great benefit in research, China can put resources to support you.”

One of China’s ultimate goals, observers of its efforts say, is to be accepted as a scientific powerhouse. “The political leaders want to see the Chinese winning the Nobel Prize,” said Cong Cao, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in the U.K.

Addressing science leaders last year, Chinese President Xi Jinpingurged them to strive for breakthroughs as one of the keys to China’s future. “Innovate, innovate, innovate,” he said.

Some Chinese research has aroused controversy. A group from Guangdong province sparked a global outcry in April when it reported using a gene-editing tool on human embryos, work that could alter human patients’ DNA in ways inheritable by their offspring. Some ethicists and scientists in Western countries called for a moratorium on such work. An international conference to discuss the implications of gene-editing technologies is now planned for this fall.

Controversy could surround Dr. Ren’s research, too, as it becomes better known. Harbin-born, Dr. Ren studied and worked in the U.S. for more than 15 years before giving up a faculty position at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and returning to his hometown in northeast China three years ago. His wife and two daughters remain in the U.S., where he visits them several times a year.

In Harbin, he spends most of his waking hours on his research. He completed the laborious 2013 mouse operation in the early morning hours of a Saturday.

One reason Dr. Ren returned was to take advantage of the Chinese government’s robust support for medical research. Another was that he doubted he could do the work he aspired to in the U.S.

A proposal for head-transplant experiments would face daunting obstacles in the U.S., both in terms of funding and ethical concerns, other researchers agree. But at Harbin Medical University, where Dr. Ren is director of the hand and microsurgical center, his work not only has won the approval of an ethics board but also has received government and university grants totaling roughly 10 million yuan, or about $1.6 million.

Head-transplant research isn’t frivolous, Dr. Ren said. If such transplants could be perfected, he said, they might one day be able to help human patients who have intact brains but broken bodies, such as people with spinal-cord injuries, cancer and muscle-wasting diseases.

He doesn’t want to oversell his team’s progress. Dr. Ren wouldn’t predict when he might try a human transplant.

(From CNN June 23, 2015)

Quassim Cassam is a professor of philosophy at University of Warwick. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

(CNN)The world's first full head transplant could take place as soon as 2017 if thecontroversial plans by Italian neuroscientist Dr Sergio Canavero come to pass. Wheelchair-bound Valery Spiridonov, who has the muscle-wasting Werdnig Hoffman disease, has volunteered to have his head transplanted onto a healthy body in a day-long operation.

The proposed surgery is highly controversial and its feasibility has been questionedby experts. But Dr Canavero's plans also raise complex philosophical and ethical issues. A natural question is whether a living person with Spridinov's head and someone else's body would be the same person as Spridinov. In interviews,Spridinov has made it clear that he sees the proposed procedure as a way for him to live on with a new and healthy body.

A different perspective would be that Spridinov is a head-donor rather than the recipient of a new body. He is donating his head to someone else who will live the rest of his life with Spridinov's head but won't be the same person as Spridinov. On this account, Spridinov is signing his own death warrant by volunteering for the surgery.

Despite the advanced science involved, the issues the proposed surgery raises aren't new. Writing in the 17th century, English philosopher John Locke claimed that sameness of person is fundamentally a matter of mental continuity. He illustrated his point by means of a famous thought experiment: imagine that the soul of a prince, carrying consciousness of the prince's past life, were to enter the body of a cobbler. Everyone can see, Locke contends, that the person with the cobbler's body and the prince's consciousness would be the prince and not the cobber. It would be just to punish this person for the prince's past misdeeds but not the cobbler's.

Related: Are human head transplants coming soon?

Locke's view continues to be highly influential today, but it is assumed by most philosophers that the seat of consciousness is the brain rather than the soul. A modern variation on Locke's example, devised by American philosopher Sydney Shoemaker, involves transplantation of the brain rather than the soul. If Mr Brown's brain were transplanted into Mr Robinson's de-brained skull, the resulting person -- Shoemaker calls him Mr Brownson - would look like Robinson but would in fact be Brown as long as he is aware of Brown's past as his own past.

    Locke's theory can be seen as justifying Spridinov's view of Dr Canavero's procedure. Spridinov's head is where his brain is. Since his brain is the seat of his mental life, the person with Spridinov's head and someone else's body would be mentally continuous with Spridinov and so would be him.

    However, there is no guarantee that things will turn out this way. Another possibility is that the surgery will wipe out Spridinov's memories. The person who wakes from head transplant surgery might have no consciousness of Spridinov's past and no sense of himself as Spridinov. If this were to happen Spridinov would no longer exist on Locke's view. Instead, the surgery would bring into existence a new person who happens to have with Spridinov's head.

    Locke's theory has recently come under fire from philosophers who call themselves "animalists". They hold that each of us is a human animal, and the person who emerges from the surgery is the same person as Spridinov just as long as he is the same human animal as Spridinov. Unlike Locke, animalists think that this is a physical rather than a mental or psychological matter. Our mental lives can be disrupted without calling into question our continued existence.

    Even from an animalist perspective, there is a case for saying that if any person wakes up from the surgery that person will be Spridinov. A human animal can arguably survive the loss of its limbs and most of its internal organs as long as its head and brain are kept alive and functional. The whole body isn't required. For animalists, as for Locke, Spridinov might be right to think that he is being offered a new body rather than certain death. But sameness of person might be seen as being of little value without the mental continuity.

    If what matters to Spridinov is mental continuity as well as having a healthy body then it will not be possible to determine whether the surgery is successful in these terms until after the event. The impact of head transplants on our mental lives remains unknown.