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Earth-Shattering Surgery Gives Toddler Windpipe from Plastic and Stem Cells

Update Date: Apr 30, 2013 02:11 PM EDT

When the now two-year-old Hannah Warren was born in Seoul, her parents were informed that it was unlikely that she would live past the age of six. She was born with a rare condition called tracheal agenesis, which means that she had no trachea, otherwise known as the windpipe. As a result, Hannah could not breathe through her mouth, eat or speak. Since birth, she has lived in a newborn intensive care unit at a Korean hospital, breathing through a tube in her mouth that connects her esophagus to her lungs.

That all changed earlier this month. Hannah became the recipient of a groundbreaking surgery that should allow her to be able to breathe through her mouth, eat, swallow and speak. The surgery was the sixth in the world and the first in the United States. Hannah is the youngest person to receive such a bioengineered organ.

According to the Wall Street Journal, doctors constructed the windpipe out of the soft plastic that is used to create water and soda bottles. Then the trachea was coated with stem cells obtained from the toddler's bone marrow. Doctors are not exactly sure what happens after the complicated surgery is completed, but it is believed that the body gives signals to the stem cells, which then become epithelial cells. Because the stem cells are obtained from Hannah's own body, she does not even need to take the immune suppressant drugs that are common for people who receive transplants.

The New York Times reports that, because Hannah is so young, the surgery comes with an array of additional challenges. She will need another windpipe in about five years. The surgeons tried to offset this as much as they could by oversizing the pipe and fashioning it out of a material that they hope can stretch.

Doctors also hope that they can perform a clinical trial in order to assess how effective the technique is, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of how it works. Dr. Paolo Macchiani, who has performed all six of the world's surgeries, says that he is ready to perform a trial in the United States, with approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

More information about Hannah can be found here.

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