April 30, 2013 -- In a groundbreaking feat of science and surgery, a Korean toddler born without a windpipe received an artificial trachea made from her own stem cells.
Hannah Warren, 2½, 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. But after a nine-hour marathon operation to implant a windpipe made of nanofiber mesh coated with her own bone marrow cells, the girl in pigtails finally had her first lollipop.
"All we have ever wanted since Hannah was born was to be able to bring her home and be a regular family," Hannah's father, Darryl Warren, said in a statement from the Children's Hospital of Illinois, where an international team of doctors took on Hannah's unusual case.
Hannah is the first child to receive a tissue-engineered trachea devoid of any donor cells, according to the Peoria, Ill.-based hospital. Lead surgeon Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, professor of regenerative surgery at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said the transplant crosses frontiers by eliminating the need for a human donor and a lifetime of immunosuppressant drugs.
"The most amazing thing, which for a little girl is a miracle, is that this transplant has not only saved her life, but it will eventually enable her to eat, drink and swallow, even talk, just like any other normal child," Macchiarini said in a statement. "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."
Hannah is still recovering with the support of pulmonologists, respiratory therapists and speech therapists, according to a hospital statement.
"Words cannot express our thanks to everyone who has helped make this dream a reality," said Canadian-born Darryl Warren, who was accompanied to the United States by his Korean wife, Young-Mi, and their 4-year-old daughter, Dana. "We know one day soon we will get to make that trip home."
Macchiarini and his team have transplanting artificial tracheas since 2008. In July 2012, 13-year-old Ciaran Finn-Lynch became the first child to receive a donor trachea stripped of cells and re-seeded with his own. But Hannah is the youngest patient to receive an artificial trachea, and the first child to receive an organ made solely from synthetic materials and her own cells.
"Hannah's case is a great example of how the international community can work together to save a child's life," co-surgeon Dr. Mark Holterman, professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, said in a statement.
At a press conference Tuesday, Hannah's parents expressed tearful gratitude to all the doctors who helped save their daughter.
"It's been a long journey for her," Darryl Warren said of Hannah's battle since birth and the trip from Seoul. "We're just so blessed that she was able to get this unbelievable opportunity. She really only had one chance, and now she got it. She's here with us. And we couldn't ask for anything else."