The World’s First Synthetic Windpipe

Episode: 
61

A few years ago, most of the grass in our back yard was scorched and died. It took us several years, and some failed attempts, to reseed, regrow and rebuild it. Finally, it's green and healthy. I would like to tell you about a different kind of "seeding," that takes less time, with fantastic results. This story is from the world of biotechnology. It features an international cast of characters, beginning with Andemariam, a 36-year-old geology student from Eritrea, studying in Finland. He recently became the world's first recipient of a synthetic windpipe.[1] His Italian surgeon trained in Italy, Alabama and France, and taught in Germany and Spain before moving to Sweden, where the surgery was performed. Andemariam's windpipe was constructed in London, with parts supplied by a Massachusetts biotech company.

Andemariam had a rare tracheal cancer that did not respond to chemotherapy or radiation. Without a transplant he would have died from a growing tumor that impaired his breathing.

The international team of scientists and doctors created a replica of his windpipe using nanotechnology to build a spongy scaffold, kind of like the support for building papier-mâché. Using stem cells from the patient's bone marrow and nose, they "seeded" the scaffold. Similar to grass seed, the cells multiplied and spread. This took place inside a bioreactor, resembling the process of basting a rotisserie chicken. After just two days of growth, the new organ was ready for transplant.

Because the cells were taken from the patient's own body, there were no immune rejection issues. After such encouraging results, the doctors are now planning on using this same technique to treat a nine-month old child in Korea born with a malformed windpipe.[2]

This is an exciting breakthrough that combines innovations in stem cell research and the emerging field of nanotechnology. The patient does not have to wait for an organ donor, which could take years. A new windpipe can be made within two days to a week.  Scientists predict that the technology could be used to create other simple organs and tissues such as the uterus and blood vessels.

Researchers used the natural ability of adult stem cells to create this synthetic organ.  Adult stem cells are found throughout the human body, where they replace damaged cells and tissues.  They can also be found in the umbilical cord and placenta.  Unlike embryonic stem cell research, no embryos are harmed. Also unlike embryo stem cell research, these amazing "seeds" are taken from the patient's own body, will not be rejected, and don't develop into tumors,  problems embryonic stem cell research has not solved.

As researchers learn more about adult stem cells and how to grow them in the lab, they are more frequently used in both experimental and routine medical treatments.  So far, adult stem cells show promising results with over 70 different diseases.[3] Further research may also help alleviate the problem of the shortage of donated organs.

Imagine that: using your own stem cells to "seed" your own life-saving transplant. That's better than a new lawn, any day.

 


[1] Michelle Roberts, "Surgeons Carry Out First Synthetic Windpipe Transplant, " BBC News, July 7,  2001  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-14047670 (accessed September 5,  2011).

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a list of diseases successfully treated with adult stem cells, see http://www.stemcellresearchfacts.org/treatment-list/ (accessed September 5,  2011).

 

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