Using bone marrow stem cells to repair a trachea

Physicians at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, in collaboration with researchers from Italy, have used a boy’s own stem cells to rebuild his windpipe. To do this, they removed the cells from a donor trachea so that only the collagen skeleton of the trachea was left. Then they collected bone marrow stem cells from the patient, and pasted them throughout the tracheal skeleton. Because these cells were taken from the patient, their chances of being rejected by the immune system are quite low. After the nine-hour surgery, the boy is in good health.

Martin J. Elliot, director of tracheal services of Great Ormond Street and the developers of Europe’s first specialized tracheal surgery service for children said, “The child is extremely well. He’s breathing completely for himself and speaking, and he says it’s easier for him to breathe than it has been for many years.” The physicians hoped that over the next few months the stem cells will grow throughout the trachea and transform into tracheal epithelial cells. This procedure could be an amazing advance in regenerative medicine.

Martin Birchall, a collaborator on this work said, “This procedure is different in a number of ways, and we believe it’s a real milestone.” He continued, “It is the first time a child has received stem cell organ treatment, and it’s the longest airway that has ever been replaced.”
This particular patient was born with long segment tracheal stenosis (narrowing). This life-threatening disease can greatly inhibit the ability to breathe.

After unsuccessful trials, this research group contacted Paolo Macchiarini from Careggi University Hospital in Florence, Italy. Macchiarini directed the first transplant organ surgery with stem cells on a 30-year-old patient who received a new portion of trachea after her own was impaired from tuberculosis. Macchiarini had the bright idea to use the boy’s own stem cells to restore his trachea. However, this procedure aspired to replace the entire trachea instead of a small portion of the trachea. While the initial results are very interesting, additional research is necessary to determine if the procedure works over long-term. If successful, it could lead researchers to attempt to transplant other engineered organs such as the larynx or esophagus.

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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).