CHICAGO -- A 2-year-old girl born without a windpipe now has a new one grown from her own stem cells, the youngest patient in the world to benefit from the experimental treatment.
Hannah Warren has been unable to breathe, eat, drink or swallow on her own since she was born in South Korea in 2010. Until the operation at a central Illinois hospital, she had spent her entire life in a hospital in Seoul. Doctors there told her parents there was no hope and they expected her to die.
The stem cells came from Hannah's bone marrow, extracted with a special needle inserted into her hip bone. They were seeded in a lab onto a plastic scaffold, where it took less than a week for them to multiply and create a new windpipe, or trachea.
About the size of a 3-inch tube of penne pasta, the windpipe was implanted April 9 in a nine-hour procedure.
Early signs indicate the windpipe is working, Hannah's doctors at Children's Hospital of Illinois in Peoria announced Tuesday, although she is still on a ventilator. They believe she will eventually be able to live at home and lead a normal life.
"We feel like she's reborn," said Hannah's father, Darryl Warren.
"They hope that she can do everything that a normal child can do, but it's going to take time. This is a brand new road that all of us are on," he said in a telephone interview. "This is her only chance, but she's got a fantastic one and an unbelievable one."
Mr. Warren choked up and his wife, Lee Young-mi, was teary-eyed at a hospital news conference Tuesday. Hannah developed an infection after the operation but now is acting like a healthy 2-year-old, her doctors said.
Mr. Warren said he hopes the family can bring Hannah home for the first time in a month or so. Hannah turns 3 in August.
"It's going to be amazing for us to finally be together as a family of four," he said. The couple have an older daughter.
Only about 1 in 50,000 children worldwide are born with the windpipe defect. The stem-cell technique has been used to make other body parts besides windpipes and holds promise for treating other birth defects and childhood diseases, her doctors said.
Hannah's parents had read about Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini's success using stem-cell based tracheas but couldn't afford to pay for the operation at his center, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. So Mark Holterman helped the family arrange to have the procedure at his Peoria hospital, bringing in Dr. Macchiarini to lead the operation. Children's Hospital waived the cost, likely hundreds of thousands of dollars, Dr. Holterman said.
Part of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, the Roman Catholic hospital considers the operation part of its mission to provide charity care but also views it as a way to champion a type of stem-cell therapy that doesn't involve human embryos, the surgeons said.