A man who lost much of his throat to a bad infection grew a replacement on a mesh tube usually used to prop open clogged arteries, doctors reported Friday.
The man, paralyzed from the neck down, can swallow and eat normally after years of trouble with his esophagus, the team reports in the Lancet medical journal.
It's another step forward in the field of regenerative medicine, in which scientists are experimenting with ways to help people regrow damaged or diseased body parts.
"This is a first in human operation and one that we undertook as a life-saving measure once we had exhausted all other options available to us and the patient," said Kulwinder Dua of the Medical College of Wisconsin, who led the study team.
It's a long way off from being a routine operation but might be especially useful for helping people with esophageal cancer, Dua said.
The 24-year-old man had a terrible infection that ate away most of his esophagus after he was paralyzed in a car accident. It was hard to see a way to repair the damage.
The team used a commercially available stent, a wire mesh tube normally used to reopen clogged arteries. They also used some commercially available tissue matrix, and sprayed the whole assemblage with platelets — healing cells — taken out of the patient's own blood. That made for an esophagus grown partly with outside materials and partly with the patient's own cells, the team said.
It did not grow smoothly. The stents got clogged up with messy tissue after a few years and had to be pulled out when the patient had trouble swallowing, they reported. But then the esophagus healed nicely.
"Four years after stent removal, the patient was eating a normal diet and maintaining a steady weight," they wrote.
It's not unusual to build body parts using a scaffold and cells. Earlier this year a team at Wake Forest University reported they used a combination of living cells and a special gel to print out living human body parts — including ears, muscles and jawbones.
In 2006, the same team made the first full organ ever grown and implanted into a human — the bladder — and rabbit penises that were the first solid organs.
Researchers have also grown new vocal cords from just a few cells.
And a team at the Children's Hospital of Illinois made a trachea, or windpipe, for a toddler in 2013 using mesh and her own bone marrow cells, although she died later.