CHICAGO – A 2-year-old girl born without a windpipe now has 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.
About the size of a 3-inch tube of penne pasta, it was implanted April 9 in a nine-hour procedure.
Early signs indicate the windpipe is working, Hannah’s doctors announced Tuesday, although she is still on a ventilator. They believe she will 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,” he said. “This is her only chance but she’s got a fantastic one and an unbelievable one.”
Warren choked up and his wife, Lee Young-mi, was teary-eyed at a hospital news conference Tuesday. Hannah did not attend because she is still recovering from surgery. She developed an infection after the operation but now is acting like a healthy 2-year-old, her doctors said.
Warren said he hopes the family can bring Hannah home for the first time in a month or so. She 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.
One in 50,000 born with defect
Only about one in 50,000 children worldwide are born with the windpipe defect. The stem-cell technique has been used to make other body parts and holds promise for treating other birth defects and childhood diseases, her doctors said.
The operation brought together an Italian surgeon based in Sweden who pioneered the technique, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria who met Hannah’s family while on a business trip to South Korea, and Hannah — born to a Newfoundland man and a Korean woman who married after he moved to that country to teach English.
Hannah’s parents had read about Dr. Paolo Macchiarini’s success using stem-cell-based tracheas but couldn’t afford the operation at his center, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. So Dr. Mark Holterman helped arrange to have the procedure at his Peoria hospital, bringing in Macchiarini to lead the operation. Children’s Hospital waived the cost, Holterman said.