by Gabriela Murphy-Goldberg

Two and a half years ago, a man named Mr. Beyene who lived in iceland was diagnosed with a golf size tumor growing into his windpipe. Despite surgery and radiation, the tumor kept growing. If it was left to continue, the tumor would fully block his airway, preventing him from breathing ever again. He was out of options, and thought that he was surely going to die. Then, in a leap forward in understanding the science of tissue engineering, Dr. Paolo Macchiarini had an exotic idea that would lead a revolution toward the path to full organ regeneration.

Dr. Paolo Macchiarini wanted to grow a personalized windpipe for this man, and implant the bioartificial organ himself. At first Mr. Beyene was resistant, noting that he would rather live three years with the cancer and die, than go through with the surgery and expire right there on the operating table. Now before finishing this story, let us dive into the science that lurks behind the mystery.

Tissue engineering incorporates manmade functional biological organs, or tissue replacements , by personal cells of the patient being introduced into the framework of biodegradable structures, or matrices (Macchiarini, et al 2004).  Most of the research in this field dealing with organs includes success with hollow organs such as windpipes and bladders. An example of such a bio-friendly matrix would be the porous, fibrous plastic that was used for Mr. Beyene’s potential new windpipe. To make the windpipe, stem cells would be harvested from his bone marrow and implanted into that previously described plastic.

The stem cells being used is the backbone of the entire research philosophy: to make organs that include cells, blood vessels, and nerves that will become a living functional part of the body it is to stitched into. The stem cell-plastic complex would then be soaked with nutrient solution and placed into a bioreactor for a day and a half (like a rotisserie style chicken) until it was “grown to perfection.” This new organ would then ready for surgery.

As a result of the scientific evidence presented to him by Dr. Paolo Macchiarini and his colleagues, Mr. Beyene agreed to undergo the experimental surgery. That “rotisserie” windpipe eventually replaced Mr. Beyene’s previous cancerous windpipe with success. Fifteen months post the operation, Mr. Beyene is tumor free and breathing normally. He went back in Iceland with his wife and children, including a one year old son whom he never thought he would be able to raise, let alone know at all.

With the success of this tissue engineering expedition, more research is to come from Dr. Macchiarini and his team, along with the rest of the world. The research teams across the board will try and expand their work from hollow organs to more complex organs such as kidneys, livers, and even hearts.

So if you have a broken heart next Valentine’s Day season, who knows? They may just be able to grow you a new heart!

For more information on this research, please refer to the journal article reference below:
Macchiarini, P., Walles, T., Biancosino, C., Mertsching, H. (2004). First Human Transplantation of a Bioengineered Airway Tissue. The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, 128:638-641.