Groundbreaking Trachea Transplant Could Become Routine

A mom with a stem cell windpipe leads a normal life, researchers say.

Oct. 23, 2013— -- The first person to breathe through a tissue-engineered windpipe is still alive today, raising hopes that the science fiction-style transplant could one day become routine.

The unnamed Colombian mother of two was 30 years old when she signed on to swap her tuberculosis-ravaged trachea for a stem cell-seeded donor organ. Now, five years later, the woman leads a "normal" life, according to a case report published Tuesday in The Lancet.

"These results confirm what we -- and many patients -- hoped at the time of the original operation: that tissue-engineered transplants are safe and effective in the long term," Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, the Stockholm-based surgeon who pioneered the procedure, said in a statement.

Read more about trachea transplants.

The woman still has scarring from the 2008 procedure, according to the case report, and has gone through 14 different stents to widen her narrowing windpipe.

"Excitement about tracheal regenerative therapy might be muted by realization that the patient in this study was not restored to full health," Dr. Alan Russell of Carnegie Mellon University's Disruptive Health Technology Institute wrote in an editorial accompanying the case report. "The approach is elegant but fraught with challenges and opportunities for improvement."

The success story comes on the heels of a sad setback: the July 6 death of a 2-year-old girl given a similar transplant by the very same surgeon.

Hannah Warren, the pigtailed youngster who made history as the youngest person to receive an artificial windpipe, died from complications less than three months after receiving an artificial trachea-seeded with her own bone marrow cells, according to the Children's Hospital of Illinois.

"Despite all efforts, Hannah was unable to overcome additional health issues that were identified as her care progressed," the Peoria hospital said in a statement. "Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the Warren family."

Learn more about Hannah's transplant.

Hannah was born with tracheal agenesis, a rare and usually fatal birth defect. She had spent her entire life in a neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, unable to breathe, swallow, eat or drink on her own.

In April, Macchiarini gave Hannah a windpipe made of nanofiber mesh coated with her own bone marrow cells.

"It will eventually enable her to eat, drink and swallow, even talk, just like any other normal child," Macchiarini said in a statement at the time. "She will go from being a virtual prisoner in a hospital bed to running around and playing with her sister and enjoying a normal life, which is a beautiful thing."

Although the trachea was "performing well," Hannah's lung function "went from fairly good to weak to poor," according to her family.

"Our hearts are broken," Hannah's dad, Darryl, mom, Young-Mi, and sister, Dana, said in a statement on the family's fundraising page. "She is a pioneer in stem-cell technology, and her impact will reach all corners of our beautiful Earth. ... She's free now, and with her Angel Wings, she will perform many more miracles in Heaven."