Associated Press
Claudia Castillo

Stem Cell Trachea Transplant Could Unlock Medical Possibilities

November 19, 2008 12:29 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
In the first operation of its kind, doctors have used stem cells to replace a woman's trachea, the most recent in a string of stem cell developments.

Trachea Transplant Makes History

Five months after doctors in Spain gave Claudia Castillo, 30, a new trachea with the use of stem cells, her lungs are working normally for a person her age, Bloomberg reports.

Tuberculosis had damaged Castillo’s windpipe to the extent that doctors were about to remove her lung. Normally, attempts to replace an airway would result in a potentially fatal rejection by the body.

But doctors were able to thoroughly clean a trachea taken from a donor, and coat it with Castillo’s stem cells in a process called “tissue engineering.” Castillo’s immune system has been able to handle the new trachea, and she does not have a greater risk for diseases such as cancer because she doesn't have to take medication to prevent an organ rejection.

Scientists have called the results of the surgery a monumental achievement for the medical community, and it could lead the way for other stem cell-assisted transplants within 20 years, such as heart transplants. Professor Martin Birchall, an author of the study on the operation from the University of Bristol in Britain, said the operation indicated that doctors were on "the verge of a new age in surgical care,” The Age reports.

“We think that this first experience represents a milestone in medicine and hope that it will unlock the door for a safe and recipient-tailored transplantation of the airway in adults and children,'' said the physicians, headed by Paolo Macchiarini of the thoracic surgery department of the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, according to Bloomberg.

Adult Stem Cells Have Plenty of Potential

As recently as Nov. 16, the Daily Telegraph reported that a new treatment uses a patient's stem cells to fix tears in the knee's meniscal cartilage. Scientists are ready to try the procedure out on people. 

The newspaper explained how it works: "They placed the cells inside the tear, held in place by a spongy scaffold made from collagen, and found the stem cells brought the two pieces of torn cartilage together."

The procedure uses stem cells taken from bone marrow, and is described as a "living bandage."

Meniscal cartilage tears are a common injury among athletes, and are not easy to repair. Many people choose to risk future osteoarthritis problems by having the cartilage removed altogether.

Other species are benefitting from stem cells, too. Injuries that used to end horses’ careers are being repaired with their own stem cells, reports Wired magazine. National Institutes of Health researchers are growing human spinal disks, cartilage and muscle in the labs, though the tissues aren’t ready to be used yet.

“Stem cells are very promising, but what they do for horses may not work so well for humans because humans are the hardest animal to rebuild,” said Rocky Tuan, a researcher at NIH, in an interview with Wired.

Last year, another research team said it was able to reprogram human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells, or cells that can turn into any type of human tissue.

In the past decade, science has learned quite a bit about what adult stem cells can and can’t do. Adult stem cells don’t carry any federal limits or the baggage embryonic stem cells do.

But not all adult stem cell research has been so promising. Scientists haven’t been able to replicate some of the most exciting adult stem cell studies, according to Scientific American. Another NIH researcher, Eva Mezey, told Scientific American last year that embryonic stem cells are still more versatile than adult stem cells.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Shackled’ research vs. the end of embryonic stem cells

Thomas Robey, a medical student at the University of Washington, recently reflected on the seven years since President George W. Bush enacted a ban on using federal money to develop and research new embryonic stem cell lines.

“The end result of the policy is that, anything goes if you have your own money. This slowed down all of the richest universities, but did not stop them, because research was still permitted on the ‘presidentially approved’ lines,” Robey wrote.

Though the development of another series of stem cells that look like embryonic stem cells does not make human embryo stem cell research unnecessary, they do have their benefits.

“These cells do present a true middle ground between the scientific proponents and religious opponents to [human embryonic stem cell] research,” he wrote on the blog Clashing Culture.

But Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., believes advances in other types of stem cells may be the answer to the embryonic stem cell ethics debate.

“I think that, in time, this probably will be the final chapter of this particular debate about embryonic stem cells, but I don’t think we’re at the end of it quite yet,” Levin said in a July interview with The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Reference: Stem cells explained

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