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Full Recovery: Swedish Doctors Complete First Synthetic Windpipe Transplant

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A 36-year-old man suffering from late stage tracheal cancer was staring down the end of his life. The cancer almost fully blocked his windpipe, and since there were no suitable windpipe donors, his options for surviving amounted to next to nothing.

That is, until doctors at The Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm created a “lab-made windpipe seeded with his own stem cells” and then successfully performed transplant surgery on the man back on June 9th. Amazingly, doctors say the man is on his way to a “full recovery” and will be released from the hospital this Friday.

Professor Paolo Macchiarini, who has also involved in previous windpipe transplants, said the surgery at Karolinska “is the first synthetic tissue engineered windpipe that has been successfully transplanted.”

To perform the surgery, an international team lead by Macchiarini built a scaffold and a bioreactor to seed it with the patient’s stem cells. New cells to line and cover the windpipe were then grown on the scaffold for two days before it was transplanted.

“Because the cells used to regenerate the trachea were the patient’s own, there has been no rejection of the transplant and the patient is not taking (anti-rejection) drugs,” Karolinska said in a statement.

According to the AP report, scientists have the capacity to create simple organs like the windpipe, esophagus or bladder using synthetic structures, but that it will be years before they create more complicated organs like kidneys or hearts in the laboratory.

But that’s what we’re progressing towards. Imagine one day in the future when it will be possible for doctors to grow synthetic human organs based on a person’s cells.

“The plastic polymer used to make the artificial windpipe has previously been used in tear ducts and blood vessels. It has a spongy surface to speed cell growth. The makers of the synthetic windpipe said they thought its most immediate application would be for patients with tracheal cancer and that a similar structure might also help people with cancer of the throat. Patients with those types of cancer are often diagnosed late and have few good treatment options,” The AP reports.

Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, the regenerative surgery professor who carried out the procedure, said he planned to use the same windpipe-transplant technique on three more patients, two from the U.S. and a nine-month-old child from North Korea who was born without a trachea, reports MSNBC.

It’s going to be interesting to follow the development of these monumental, but seemingly small, medical breakthroughs. It won’t be long before there is a possible future where things like organ donor lists are a distant memory.

Between this developmental step in the process of achieving viable synthetic human organs and the work being done by Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon’s Health and Science University, where he was able to swap unhealthy and problematic genes with healthy ones in monkeys, thus opening the possibility of one day eliminating the potential of inheriting diseases and unfavorable conditions in humans.

In many ways we’re already living in the future with flying cars and portable computers and a black president in America. In many others ways, the human species is in the cusp of living in a medical future that seems almost impossible to fathom.

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