A two-year-old Korean-Canadian girl born without a trachea now has a new one grown from her own stem cells. The surgery makes Hannah Warren the youngest ever patient to benefit from the experimental treatment.
Before the surgery, Hannah Warren had been unable to eat, drink or swallow on her own and had spent her whole life with a breathing tube in her mouth at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea. Doctors in Seoul had told her parents that their daughter was expected to die.
But her parents found an Italian doctor based in Sweden and a U.S. pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois willing to try a new kind of procedure. By inserting a needle into her hip bone, surgeons were able to extract the girl’s own stem cells. The cells were then seeded into a plastic scaffold.
It took less than a week for the stem cells to multiply and form a new windpipe. Then surgeons at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois implanted the trachea during a nine-hour-long procedure on April 9.
The Children’s Hospital waived the cost, which was likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as part of their mission as a Roman Catholic hospital and as a way to highlight stem cell therapy that doesn’t involve human embryos, Dr. Mark Holterman of the Children’s Hospital of Illinois told the AP.
So far, doctors say the stem cell-generated windpipe appears to be working. Hannah is still on a ventilator but her doctors say she will eventually be able to live at home and lead a normal life. Since the windpipe is made from Hannah’s own cells, there’s no need to suppress her immune system to avoid rejection, as during organ transplants.
“We feel like she’s reborn,” Hannah’s father, Darryl Warren, told the Associated Press.
Regenerative medicine is still in the very early stages, but doctors won approval from the Food and Drug Administration to go ahead with the procedure since Hannah had been expected to die before reaching age 6.
The Italian doctor, Paolo Macchiarini, had worked on 14 previous surgeries where patients’ own stem cells were used to create new windpipes. Doctors predict Hannah will need a new windpipe in about five years to accommodate her growing body.