Doctors in Sweden successfully performed the world’s first artificial windpipe transplant a few months ago, and experts now saw that greater accessibility to such procedures may be coming, though it could take a few years. NY1’s Kafi Drexel filed the following report.
Just over five months ago, doctors in Sweden transplanted the world's first artificial windpipe into a man with tracheal cancer who'd been given just two weeks to live.
NY1 recently got a Skype update from the doctor who performed that surgery.
“The patient is still alive, and he has embraced his wife and his children for the first time since one year,” says Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, thoracic surgeon.
The transplant eliminated the need for a waiting list and immunosuppressive drugs, allowing the patient to go from the edge of death to breathing again. That's because the new trachea was made from the patient's own stem cells, grown inside a tiny, shoebox-shaped bioreactor that houses a plastic polymer replica of the original windpipe.
“Initially, the cells are just poured over the top of the blank scaffold, and then the scaffold slowly rotates, much like a chicken does in a rotisserie barbecue,” says David Green, president of Harvard Bioscience. “The stem cells slowly infiltrate into the pores in the plastic scaffold.”
A handful of similar surgeries have been performed, but this was the first using a totally man-made airway. Not yet approved in the U.S., doctors soon hope to bring at least two more patients overseas.
One of those patients is Vermont resident Rachel Phillips, a former ballerina whose talent to hyperextend unfortunately turned out to be evidence of a rare connective tissue disorder that causes her trachea to collapse.
“Whenever I exhale, it is 90-percent collapsed on my regular exhalation and 100-percent collapsed any other time,” says Phillips.
With such a long waiting list for tissue transplants, the obvious question is how soon these transplants might become routine and translated to organ need.
Dr. Eric Genden at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who was admittedly cautious at first, says there is promise now after speaking with doctors overseas.
“Now you’re talking about offering a potential solution where, in kind of medical speak, you can 'take this off the shelf' and use it to help the patients. That's a wonderful solution to a significant problem in the world of transplant medicine,” says Dr. Genden.
While the promise is there, doctors agree that could still be years down the road.