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updated 7/8/2011 4:47:14 PM ET 2011-07-08T20:47:14

Doctors in Sweden have performed the first-ever implant of a synthetic trachea, researchers announced.

The organ, implanted in a 36-year-old Icelandic man suffering from tracheal cancer, consisted of an artificial, trachea-shaped scaffold that had been lined with the patient's own stem cells. Because the organ included the patient's own cells, the patient did not need to take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent a rejection of the organ, the researchers said.

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The cells take just a few days to grow around the scaffold, said the researchers from the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. And the procedure does not require a donor.

"This is very amazing news," said Dr. Dao Nguyen, professor and chief of thoracic surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who was not involved in the procedure.

The implant is a breakthrough for the field because "it gives physicians and patients renewed hopes for treatment of tumors of the windpipe," Nguyen said. "Now we can make a windpipe at will."

Researchers are eager to see how the organ fares over the long term, Nguyen said.

The work also opens up new possibilities for regenerative medicine, Nguyen said. For years, scientists have been working on using stem cells to regenerate organs.

Nguyen said that the human windpipe is essentially just a tube, and is less complex than organs such as the heart and kidney. This may be why this type of regenerative technology was used first in creating a windpipe.

The same technique might one day be used to replace other organs, the researchers said.

When someone has a large cancer in their windpipe, physicians can't simply just cut the tumor out, Nguyen said. The windpipe is a rigid structure, so surgeons cannot connect the two ends, Nguyen said.

In the past, people with tracheal tumors have been treated with chemotherapy, radiation or a stent to try to keep the windpipe open, Nguyen said. "But these are short-lived options," he said. The best treatment is to physically remove the tumor.

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In the Icelandic patient, the tumor had grown to a length of 2.4 inches (6 centimeters).

One day, this technology could become more widespread, Nguyen said, and patients with airway diseases could have their own tailor-made tracheas. But such an application is likely years away, he said.

"This is a very early step. But it is a very good step toward the right direction," Nguyen told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The treatment might also benefit people who have malformed tracheas due to a genetic condition, Nguyen said. The researchers plan to next use the technology to treat a Korean infant born with a malformed trachea, according to a report by the BBC.

Paolo Macchiarini, who led the research team, previously performed a "tissue-engineered" windpipe transplant on a patient in Spain in 2008. However, in that case, the transplant used part of a trachea from a donor as the scaffold, which was then coated with the patients' stem cells.

The new, synthetic implant operation took place on June 9. The patient is now on his way to recovery and will soon be release from the hospital, the researchers said.

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