Claudia Castillo, the patient in the ground-breaking operation. Photo: AP
IN WHAT is being hailed as a world first that could revolutionise organ transplants, doctors in Spain have replaced a woman's damaged windpipe using one created from stem cells in a laboratory.
Claudia Castillo, 30, a mother of two, is living a healthy life five months after receiving the transplant in Barcelona, her doctors reported in Lancet medical journal yesterday.
Scientists used "tissue engineering" to create the windpipe, or trachea — a technique that involved using a donor's windpipe as a biological "scaffold" for Ms Castillo's stem cells to grow around.
The donor's trachea was essentially scrubbed clean with a high-tech detergent solution before being lined with stem cells taken from Ms Castillo's bone marrow and cultivated in a laboratory.
Stem cells are "master cells" that can be manipulated in a laboratory to become any other cell in the body.
Professor Martin Birchall, an author of the study based at the University of Bristol in Britain, said the operation proved doctors were on "the verge of a new age in surgical care" that could radically improve surgeons' ability to treat patients with serious diseases.
Ms Castillo, who had tuberculosis, was facing the loss of her left lung after the tube-like branch connecting it to the trachea became infected and collapsed beyond repair.
The loss of a normal airway is devastating, and attempts to replace them have met with serious problems such as rejection by the immune system, the uncontrolled die-off of cells (necrosis) and lethal bleeding.
Because Ms Castillo's new trachea was made from her own cells, she has not needed powerful drugs to prevent her body rejecting the organ.
Avoiding the use of these drugs also means that, unlike other transplant patients, she will not be at increased risk of cancer and other diseases — another significant advance.
Scientists hailed the procedure as a medical milestone and predicted surgeons could regularly be replacing hearts with laboratory-grown organs within 20 years.
The team behind the operation hopes to replicate the procedure to grow voice boxes within five years and says that from there the door would be open to use the technology to create any organ including a bladder, kidney or even a heart.
Rodney Dilley, the principal scientist at Melbourne's Bernard O'Brien Institute who recently created beating heart muscle cells from human fat using stem cells, said the procedure was a significant breakthrough.
"The fact that the trachea has been functional for five or six months is fabulous," he said.
Dr Dilley said the operation was encouraging and meant scientists may now look more seriously at using biomaterial as "scaffolds" for stem cells.
Ms Castillo, who is originally from Colombia but now lives in Spain, can now look after her children, walk up two flights of stairs and even go dancing.
"I was scared at the beginning because I was the first patient, but had confidence and trusted the doctors," she said.
"I am now enjoying life and am very happy that my illness has been cured."
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