Scientists say surgery on Paradise man’s daughter could change future of organ donations
Darryl Warren and his wife, Young-Mi, visit their two-year-old daughter, Hannah Warren, in a post-op room at Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria. Hannah underwent a high-tech trachea transplant April 9. — Photo courtesy of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Jim Carlson
Hannah Warren’s trachea transplant has the two-year-old savouring lollipops for the first time; it also has surgeons tasting the direction in which medicine is heading.
“This view into the future portends the end to organ donation, with its risky anti-rejection drugs and their inherent complications, and the start of a new age of science and technology with the creation of bioengineered organs and the cure for human disease,” Dr. Richard Pearl, surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, said during a news conference Tuesday.
Hannah, the Korean daughter of Paradise native Darryl Warren, was born without a windpipe and has spent her entire life at a Seoul hospital.
On April 9, she underwent a high-tech trachea transplant at the Illinois hospital, which is part of the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
While The Telegram has reported the operation took place, Tuesday’s media event — broadcast online — stressed the surgery’s significance.
It’s the first tissue-engineered, bio-artificial trachea transplant in a child.
Basically, stem cells from Hannah’s bone marrow were attached to a plastic scaffold, where they multiplied and created the trachea.
Such science is part of an emerging field called regenerative medicine. Research is happening in a number of centres around the world and the person who led Hannah’s operation, Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, is considered a pioneer.
The success with Hannah had her medical team glowing Tuesday.
“I cannot express what it means to me as a scientist, as a man, as a father,” Macchiarini said.
“I have learned that probably children are the patients that can be treated best with the regenerative medicine, because, by themselves, they have this beautiful gift, this regenerative process gift.”
“This is very exciting for us,” added Dr. Mark Holterman, co-surgeon and professor of surgery and pediatrics at University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. “This opens up a whole new area where we can fix a lot of our children with birth defects. Often we have a birth defect that we don’t have a good surgical solution for, and if we can use their own natural cells and give them some help, we can fix them.”
The specialists were asked about the ethics of such procedures, especially since Hannah’s transplant took place at a Catholic-run facility and the church is against the use of stem cells from embryos.
“The beauty of what we did for Hannah is we used non-embryonic stem cells,” Holterman explained.
“There are no ethical concerns or scientific concerns. The safety is so much better using her own tissues to do this. The beauty of what Paolo has done is tapped into the body’s own ability to repair itself using its own progenitor cells.”
Darryl Warren moved to South Korea to teach English more than a decade ago. He married, Young-Mi, a Korean woman, and started a family.
When their second child, Hannah, was born in August 2010 without a trachea, it looked as if she wouldn’t survive.
But she developed a small hole near her esophagus and doctors pumped air into her lungs through a tube.
She was also fed via a tube.
Her parents began searching for a solution, learning first about regenerative medicine and then of Macchiarini, who had built new tracheas out of stem cells and scaffolds and transplanted them into adults.
Holterman, who had met Hannah while on a business trip to Korea, contacted Macchiarini when he returned to Peoria.
The Italian, who teaches in Sweden, agreed to help, and so began two years of planning, preparation and paperwork.
The Warrens also launched a fundraising campaign, to which a lot of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians donated. Those efforts, along with the hospital’s charity-care program and research fund, paid for the procedure.
Hannah and her family, including her four-year old sister, Dana, travelled to Peoria on Good Friday and Macchiarini led the surgery 11 days later.
The operation took nine hours.
Hannah required work on her neck, chest and abdomen. Several organ systems had to be opened and reopened.
“The surgical stress was substantial,” said Pearl, adding there were several complications, including an infection.
But Hannah has steadily improved.
Holterman joked they knew the youngster was getting better because, through hand gestures, she’s been expressing a desire to go to a play area, and has been throwing some grown-ups out of the room.
“Maybe we’ve unleashed a new terrible twosome on her parents, and maybe we’ll be getting her home quicker,” he laughed.
That won’t happen until Hannah undergoes some rehabilitation, builds up her strength and has various tubes removed.
It is expected she’ll be able to return home and live a normal life.
Her father and mother were emotional during the news conference.
Warren noted most parents wait two days to take babies home after they’re born, but their wait to bring Hannah home from hospital for the first time will be more than 1,000 days.
“It’s almost like we’re waiting to adopt our own daughter,” he said, adding they feel blessed to have had the successful surgery.
“She really only had one chance and now she has it. ... She’s here with us and (we) couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Warren said it was just the beginning of his daughter’s journey.
She will also need to learn a lot of things, like how to eat and drink, a process that’s begun and was illustrated by video during the news conference.
“What you’re seeing right now is her first taste of a lollipop, something most kids have done all their lives,” explained Pearl. “She didn’t do it till last Friday. She likes lollipops, as it turns out. Who wouldn’t?”