Woman gets new life from dead man's windpipe

  On Thursday, surgeons implanted a windpipe from a dead man into her arm, where it grew new tissue before being transplanted into her throat.

The way doctors trained her body to accept donor tissue could yield new methods of growing or nurturing organs within patients, experts say.

The technique sounds like science fiction, but De Croock says it has transformed her life. She no longer takes anti-rejection drugs.

“Life before my transplant was becoming less livable all the time, with continual pain and jabbing and pricking in my throat and windpipe,” the 54-year-old Belgian said in a telephone interview.

Doctors at Belgium’s University Hospital Leuven implanted the donor windpipe in De Croock’s arm as a first step in getting her body to accept the organ and to restart its blood supply.

About 10 months later, when enough tissue had grown around it to let her stop taking the drugs, the windpipe was transferred to its proper place. Details of the case have been published in Thursday’s edition of New England Journal of Medicine. “This is a major step forward for trachea transplantation,” said Dr Pierce Delaere, the surgeon who led the team that treated De Croock.

For years, De Croock lived with the pain and discomfort of having two metal stents propping open her windpipe. She went looking for doctors who might be able to help her and found Delaere on the internet. “I had always wondered, ‘So many things are possible, why not a new windpipe?’” De Croock said.

Delaere and his colleagues, who had performed similar procedures on a smaller scale for cancer patients, agreed. Once the doctors had a suitable donor windpipe, they wrapped it in De Croock’s own tissue and implanted it into her lower left arm. There, they connected it to a large artery to re-establish the blood flow.

For about eight months, she took drugs to stop her immune system from rejecting the new organ. Though some of the tissue from the windpipe’s male donor remains, enough of De Croock’s own tissue now lines the organ that she no longer needs anti-rejection medicines.

Soon the surgery has a huge imapct on De Croock. “Now I’m very happy. I realise how my life has completely changed,” she said. “I can actually do what I want.”
Every six months, she has a scan to check her new windpipe, but doesn’t have to take any medicines or treatment.

“Her voice is excellent, and her breathing is normal,” Delaere said.

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