It can be called a breakthrough in stem cell research. The pan-European team of researchers have been successful in transplanting a tissue-engineered windpipe (trachea) made by the patient’s own stem cells. The bioengineered trachea immediately provided the patient with a normally functioning airway, thereby saving her life.

The loss of a normal airway is devastating, but previous attempts to replace large airways have met serious problems. Claudia Castillo, a 30-year-old mother of two, suffering from collapsed airways following a severe case of TB, was hospitalised in March 2008 with acute shortness of breath rendering her unable to carry out simple domestic duties or care for her children. The only conventional option remaining was a major operation to remove her left lung which carries a risk of complications and a high mortality rate.

Stem cells were obtained from the recipient’s own bone marrow, grown into a large population in Professor Martin Birchall’s lab at the University of Bristol, and matured into cartilage cells (chondrocytes) using an adapted method originally devised for treating osteoarthritis by Professor Anthony Hollander at the University of Bristol.The donor trachea was then seeded with chondrocytes on the outside, using a novel bioreactor which incubates cells, developed at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy, allowing them to migrate into the tissue under conditions ideal for each individual cell type.

In order to replicate the lining of the trachea, epithelial cells were seeded onto the inside of the trachea using the same bioreactor.Four days after seeding, the graft was used to replace the patient’s left main bronchus. The operation was performed in June 2008 at the Hospital Clinic, Barcelona, by Professor Paolo Macchiarini of the University of Barcelona.This 30 year old mother of two recalls the moment after her operation as the best moment in her life. She says,

“The moment I woke after the procedure, I looked up at the doctor and he smiled and told me it had been successful - it was the best moment ever. I knew then that I had a life and a future.”

Last January she was offered the chance of a replacement windpipe grown using her own stem cells, a pioneering process known as “tissue engineering“. Without the transplant, surgeons would have had to remove one of lungs, a procedure that carries a high mortality rate. She waited five months before a team of doctors at Hospital Clinic, Barcelona were ready to carry out the transplant.She is now preparing to fly home to Colombia to take her children to visit relatives that she has not seen in several years.

Now she is proud of being the first patient to have the pioneering surgery. She says:Claudia-Castillo

“I’m very proud to be the first person ever to have had this.
Not only because it means I am alive but because I took the plunge and made a decision to have the operation when others may have been put off by the risks involved.
I paid nothing for my treatment and realise I have been given a great privilege. Even if my entire family sold everything they own I would never have been able to afford this treatment otherwise, even if it was available in Columbia.”

Source: Science Daily