First fully synthetic windpipe saves a life without risk of rejection

It was a small step for science, but a big step for mankind – one man in particular. A man in Sweden recently received a new trachea (windpipe) made from synthetic material seeded with cells from the patient’s bone marrow. (The last shuttle launch on Friday has brought on aerospace wordplay.)

The big step for mankind is this: The transplant is being billed as the first fully artificial permanent organ. A similar technique by the same Swedish team back in 2008 seeded the cartilage frame of a donated trachea with a patient’s own cells. That technique still relied on a donated organ. In the recent transplant, the cells were grown on a fully synthetic structure. In both cases, because the patient’s cells are used to generate the tissue there’s no need for long-term immune-suppressing drugs to prevent rejection.

Despite the big first for the individual man, George Daley, director of stem cell transplantation at Children’s Hospital Boston, says in a USA Today story that it’s actually incremental science. He’s quoted as saying:

“The scientific advance is pretty minimal,” he says. “Tissue engineers have been marrying cells to matrices to regrow parts for many years.”

One take-away from this announcement is that a lot of incremental steps are required for every groundbreaking advance. We spend a lot of time in this blog writing about those papers that move research incrementally forward. Last week’s piece on bioengineered intestines is one example of that. This recent transplant is a reminder of where all those small steps are taking us.