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World first for synthetic organ scientists


Surgeons in Sweden have carried out the world’s first synthetic organ transplant using a windpipe ‘grown’ from the patient’s stem cells. The replica organ was designed and developed by EPSRC-sponsored scientists.

The surgeons successfully implanted a synthetic windpipe ‘scaffold’ into the throat of a cancer patient. Without the new windpipe (trachea), the patient, whose own windpipe had been blocked by an inoperable tumour the size of a golf ball, would have died.

The artificial organ was designed and developed by a multi-disciplinary team led by Professor Alex Seifalian (pictured, with the synthetic windpipe) at University College London. EPSRC sponsorship of the project began in 2006.

The team used 3D computerised tomography (CT) scans of the patient to craft a perfect copy of his trachea using a glass mould, from which they developed a replica ‘scaffold’ using a novel nanocomposite polymer.

The full-size Y-shaped replica was taken to Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden where stem cells taken from the patient’s bone marrow and linings from his nose were incorporated to it (or ‘seeded’) by Professor Paolo Macchiarini, who co-developed the scaffold with Professor Seifalian and also performed the surgery. After two days, the millions of nano-scale holes in the porous windpipe had been seeded with the patient’s own tissue.

The full biological trachea was grown in a bioreactor – a device designed for the procedure which provides the correct environment for the tissue to grow, and very effectively simulates the growth of natural tissue. The result: a synthetic windpipe with the same properties as a ‘real’ trachea.

The 12-hour operation was a complete success. One month on, the patient, a 36-year-old student, is looking forward to returning to his studies, safe in the knowledge that he will not need to take the strong anti-rejection drugs that other transplant patients have to, as the trachea was grown from his own tissue.

Professor Seifalian says: “Professor Macchiarini has previously performed successful transplants of tissue-engineered tracheas, but on those occasions the tracheas used were taken from organ donors and then reseeded with the patient’s own stem cells.

“What makes this procedure different is it’s the first time a wholly tissue-engineered synthetic windpipe has been made and successfully transplanted, making it an important milestone for regenerative medicine. We expect there to be many more exciting applications for the novel polymers we have developed.

“Thanks to nanotechnology, we are now able to produce a custom-made windpipe within two days or one week. The beauty of a synthetic windpipe is there is no delay – and this technique does not rely on a human donation.”

EPSRC’s senior healthcare technologies manager, Claire Wagstaffe, says: “‘The UK is producing world class regenerative medicine research and we are delighted that Professor Seifalian and his team have made such rapid progress in designing, developing, patenting and applying this life-saving technology.

“We’re confident EPSRC’s investment in the underpinning technologies behind the research will lead to more breakthroughs in this rapidly evolving field, providing global healthcare solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
The science

Nanocomposite: A material containing some components that are less than 100 nanometres in size. A human hair is about 60,000 nanometres in thickness.

Polymer: A repeating chain of small, identical molecules which are linked together. Polymers are already used in medical devices, but the properties of the novel polymers invented by Professor Seifalian reduce the risk of rejection, rupture, or the need for repeat surgery. They have better elasticity, strength and versatility and are formulated to encourage cell growth.

CT: Computerised tomography, a method of examining body organs by scanning them with X-rays and using a computer to construct a series of cross-sectional scans along a single axis.

Regenerative medicine: A field that includes the study and development of artificial organs, specially-grown tissues and cells (including stem cells), laboratory-made compounds, and combinations of these approaches for the treatment of injuries and disease.
Tissue engineering: Perhaps best defined as the use of a combination of cells, engineering materials, and suitable biochemical factors to improve or replace biological functions.

Scaffold: A material that spans a healing wound and provides structure for young cells as they grow into mature tissue.

Ref: PN 26-11


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