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< Cancer Patient Gets First Totally Artificial Windpipe

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July 8, 2011 - MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Surgeons in Sweden are reporting a medical milestone. They've replaced a patient's windpipe with a synthetic version that was created in a laboratory made of plastic and the patient's own stem cells.

The patient suffered from cancer of the trachea. NPR's Richard Knox has the story.

RICHARD KNOX: The patient is a 36-year-old man from Eritrea on the horn of Africa who went to Iceland to study geology. His name is Andemarian Teklesenbet Beyene. For the past year, he's been suffering from tracheal cancer, which is rare. Doctors tried everything.

As the tumor grew it was getting harder and harder for him to breathe. Doctors have successfully transplanted windpipes taken from organ donors. But Andemarian's doctor, Tomas Gudbjardsson, said that wasn't an option for him.

Dr. TOMAS GUDBJARDSSON: That often means a long wait. In this case, his symptoms were already that prominent that something had to be done.

KNOX: Gudbjardsson remembered reading about an Italian surgeon who's trying to create organs in the lab.

Dr. PAOLO MACCHIARINI (Karolinska Institute): My dream was always to transplant the safest and best windpipe.

KNOX: The surgeon, Paolo Macchiarini, works at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He agreed to take on Andemarian's case. First, he commissioned a London researcher to make a replica of Andemarian's windpipe out of a special spongy plastic. Meanwhile, a Massachusetts company called Harvard Biosciences worked day and night to fabricate a kind of incubator and ship it off to Sweden.

Once all that was done, the Stockholm team took a small amount of marrow from Andemarian's hip bone. It contains stem cells that are capable of turning into many types of tissue. They put the stem cells in the incubator along with the plastic replica, which acts as a kind of scaffolding on which the cells can grow.

They added a cocktail of growth factors to transform the stem cells into cartilage, as in a normal windpipe. A couple of days later, the synthetic trachea was ready to replace Andemarian's diseased windpipe. The operation took nearly 13 hours. That was a month ago.

Dr. MACCHIARINI: Well, he can breathe, he can cough. He has all the functionality of a normal windpipe, and he's without tumor. So that's a great thing for him.

KNOX: Today, Andemarian left the hospital and flew back to Iceland. He's tired and hoarse, but he was able to have a brief conversation.

It was difficult to breathe before?

Mr. ANDEMARIAN TEKLESENBET BEYENE: It was difficult, yes.

KNOX: And now?

Mr. BEYENE: Now it's better. I'm not exactly 100 percent, but I am good.

KNOX: Macchiarini plans to do several more of these operations, including one on a nine-month-old girl who was born without a windpipe.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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