A tale of two tracheas

Reporter and National Public Radio science correspondent Robert Krulwich recently shared a suspenseful and true story about a woman in Barcelona struck by tuberculosis. Rather than have her left lung removed, she agreed to receive a transplanted trachea. The woman, Claudia Castillo, would be a pioneer: She was going to receive a donated trachea that had been washed clean of all surface cells and then “dipped” into a bath of her own stem cells, in hopes that would prevent her body from rejecting the organ.

A donor's trachea, bathed in the patient's stem cells (photo: Harvard Bioscience)

That’s just part of the suspense. Delivering the treated transplant to Barcelona was Bristol University Professor Martin Birchall, who was banned from putting the trachea on an easyJet flight by airline security. The trachea exceeded the airline’s 100-milliliter limit, and security had no record of Birchall’s earlier request to put it on the plane.

“You do have a record, said the professor,” Krulwich writes in his blog, Krulwich Wonders. “There’s a woman in Barcelona right now who needs this, and we are running out of time. It took us five months to create this organ…We must board this plane.”

Enter medical student Philipp Jungerbluth. He told Birchall he had a pilot friend in Germany with a small jet who could come immediately to Bristol and fly directly to Spain.

“The trachea did make it to Barcelona, and then into Claudia Castillo,” Krulwich reports. “Ten days after her operation, Castillo was discharged from the hospital. Within weeks, her lung function rebounded…and doctors found no antibodies that would indicate her body was rejecting the transplant.”

Since that surgery in 2008, there have been seven more such operations, Krulwich notes. More extraordinary, Claudia’s doctor, Paolo Macchiarini, and his colleagues have constructed replacement tracheas out of glass and plastic infused with patients’ stem cells. Like worms, starfish and other creatures who can regenerate body parts, the reporter stated, “we can, in a modest way, begin to do it too” – with these new stem-cell therapies.

Krulwich acknowledges that the organs we most need – hearts, livers, kidneys – “are much harder to regenerate because those organs open, close, pull, push and are thick with blood vessels, which makes them much more complicated.” Still, I have to agree with the reporter’s conclusion.

“You have to think miracles are about to happen,” he says.

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