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Using a lab-grown trachea, surgeons complete the world’s first synthetic organ transplant

We keep hearing about the magic of lab-grown organs, and how one day, we’ll be able to grow our own replacement parts from stem cells. Now, after surgeons at Karolinska Hospital in Sweden successfully replaced a man’s trachea with a synthetic trachea grown from his own stem cells, that day appears to be upon us. Granted, a trachea is just basically a pipe and not something like a heart or kidney or liver, but it’s definitely a big step.

This story is about as international as it gets: The Eritrean patient, Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene, was pursuing his doctorate in geology in Iceland when his trachea was consumed by an inoperable tumor that grew so bad that it was actually blocking his breathing. So 3-D scans of his windpipe were sent to scientists at University College London, which crafted a glass scaffold that was a perfect match for Beyene’s trachea and two main bronchi.

The scaffold was in turn was sent to Sweden, where it was soaked in stem cells from Beyene’s own bone marrow. The stem cells took hold and within just two days had filled the scaffold, creating a new trachea that is, biologically speaking, Beyene’s own tissue. A 12-hour operation by an Italian surgeon specializing in trachea operations removed Beyene’s windpipe and all signs of the cancer and then replaced it with the new, lab-grown organ.

That was a month ago. Today, Beyene is recovering well. Because the organ was grown from his own cells, there is no risk of his body rejecting it and no need for the harsh regimen of anti-rejection drugs that usually go hand in hand with an organ transplant. Moreover, there was no need to seek out a donor. In Beyene’s case, that was key. The tumor was increasingly blocking his breathing, and without the transplant he would have died. 


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