How to build a windpipe

Humans can’t live without a patent windpipe (trachea). So any condition that blocks it up is potentially lethal. Cancers, infections, trauma, genetic abnormalities, can all lead to a blocked or too narrow windpipe. So what do you do when you find yourself with a cancer as big as a golf ball blocking yours ? Well, you hope that science can figure out how to grow one, and fast. This is what doctors and scientists did in the case of 36 year-old Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene. They took scans of his trachea and the 2 main bronchi, which they used to calculate a 3-D model, which was then built with some special porous glass. This they flew to Sweden to coat it in the patient’s own adult stem cells, which within a few days filled out the pores of this scaffold model, and so created an exact replica of the patient’s original windpipe. This was then used to replace the cancerous one in a 12-hour operation.

Now, similar surgeries have been successful in the past 3 years, but they used a donor windpipe from a dead person, which they washed down to the collagen scaffold and then repopulated with a mix of adult stem cells and cells from the patient’s own windpipe lining. This time, the trachea was fully grown from the patient’s own adult stem cells, so that rejection of the transplant is not an issue at all, and it was also the largest trachea that has so far been transplanted, and included the 2 main bronchi.
The patient is apparently doing well one month after the surgery. Pretty cool, hey !

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