Doctors at the Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden have successfully implanted a synthetic part of the larynx into two patients.

The larynx, otherwise known as the voice box, houses the mechanism used for speech. It also helps direct the flow of breathing, and prevents food and other objects from entering the trachea. At the bottom of the larynx is an integral component called the cricoid arch. Because of its precarious position, the larynx is vulnerable to injury during car accidents when the driver smashes their neck against the steering wheel – which is what happened to the two patients being operated on in Stockholm. In both of these cases, patients lost their capacity for speech.

Researchers working in the United States’ Harvard Bioscience built scaffolding out of synthetic material. The international team of doctors then applied stem cells from the patients to the scaffold, and supplied a reactor voice box. Because the stem cells came from the patient, there is no risk that the new larynx will be rejected. The same team, led by Paolo Macchiarini, performed a similar surgery on a patient earlier this summer, inserting a synthetic trachea. All signs point to indications that the surgery was a success on that patient as well.

Previous and current surgeries on the larynx involved taking it from a cadaver. However, that would mean waiting on the organ transplant list, and contending with possible rejection. This method solves both of those problems.

Synthetic parts or whole organs are the new frontier in medicine. Doctors have previously created synthetic veins and hollow organs.

However, this surgery is the first step. In the future, doctors want to be able to materialize complete synthetic organs from scratch, and to completely restore the capacity of speech. That goal seems to be quite a few years away, as the larynx, with all its moving parts, is quite intricate.