Royal Free team creates world’s first artificial windpipe

A Royal Free Hospital team has created the world’s first ever artificial trachea – and saved a man’s life.

And amazingly, it was developed from scratch in just two weeks.

Professor Alexander Seifalian, of University College London, alongside Claire Crowley and Arnold Darbyshire, created the windpipe for Andemarian Telesenbet Beyene.

The 36-year-old geology student from Eritrea was suffering from late-stage tracheal cancer with a rare, aggressive tumour blocking his windpipe.

The trachea was created in Hampstead and then shipped all the way to Stockholm to be implanted into the patient. Now Mr Beyene is said to be able to cough and breathe normally.

Prof Seifalian modestly describes the innovative work he does as “developing human spare parts”.

But when cancer expert Dr Paolo Macchiarini came to the team asking for an artificial trachea for a patient, it was to be the team’s biggest challenge yet.

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Prof Seifalian said: “He asked me if I could make a windpipe and we said yes. In fact, we were actually working on one already at a slow pace. I thought he meant in a few months’ time or a year’s time. But he said, ‘I want it within a week.’

“I pushed him for one week to two weeks , which is as far as we could push it without the patient dying.”

From that moment, the team barely left the lab, eating in the coffee break room and grabbing snatches of sleep wherever and whenever they could, before waking up and getting back to work.

Prof Seifalian added: “We were under huge pressure because we had to make it right first time. It’s all right if it’s not perfect if it is going to the lab to be tested. But when it is going straight into a patient, it’s different.”

The trachea was made of a hi-tech “nano-technology” polymer but the original mould was created in a much more traditional manner. A glassblower was sent a CT scan of the patient’s trachea and a perfect glass mould was created. This was then dipped in the polymer which set when submerged in water. Salt in the polymer was dissolved in the water to make millions of tiny little holes.

The team then took stem cells from the patient, implanted them into the trachea and waited for them to grow – matching it perfectly to Mr Beyene’s body.

Prof Seifalian believes that this is the future of medicine. “It is almost like going to a car shop when you need a replacement tyre. If a doctor orders a new trachea, we will make it, or construct breasts after a mastectomy, or even arteries.

“People are getting older and the combination of a smart material and stem cells mean you can make organs and body parts which are tailored to patients.”

One day, the work at the Royal Free labs may reduce both the need for donor organs across all disciplines and crucially reduce the risk of rejection by the body.