Now that scientists for the first time have successfully implanted a child with an artificial trachea devoid of donor cells, we can all breathe a little easier — especially Hannah Warren, 2½, who was born with tracheal agenesis, a birth defect that is usually fatal.
The Korean toddler born without a windpipe had spent her life in a neonatal intensive care unit in Seoul, South Korea, before receiving the implant at the Children's Hospital of Illinois under the care of an international team of surgeons.
Other children have also received tracheal implants, but this operation marked the first time that a trachea has been grown using only synthetic material and cells from the body of the patient.
The procedure is groundbreaking because it eliminated the need for a human donor, and a lifetime of immunosuppressant drugs, said Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, professor of regenerative surgery at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and leader of the surgical team that operated on Hannah.
"The most amazing thing, which for a little girl is a miracle, is that this transplant has not only saved her life, but it will eventually enable her to eat, drink, and swallow, even talk, just like any other normal child," Macchiarini said in a statement. "She will go from being a virtual prisoner in a hospital bed to running around and playing with her sister and enjoying a normal life, which is a beautiful thing."
The surgery, which took nine hours to complete, involved the installation of a nanofiber mesh coated with the girl's own bone marrow cells.
Hannah is recovering with the help of pulmonologists, respiratory therapists and speech therapists.
The team led by Macchiarini has transplanted tracheas since 2008, including for 13-year-old Ciaran Finn-Lynch, who in July 2012 became the first child to receive a donor trachea stripped of cells and then re-seeded with his own.
"Hannah's case is a great example of how the international community can work together to save a child's life," co-surgeon Dr. Mark Holterman said.
"Words cannot express our thanks to everyone who has helped make this dream a reality," Hannah's father Darryl Warren said. "We know one day soon we will get to make that trip home."
Warren has organized a fund, Help Hannah Breathe, to help pay for Hannah's recovery and the costs associated with traveling to the United States for surgery. You can contribute to the fund by visiting the website.