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Doctors: We Pulled Off the 'Holy Grail' of Surgeries

NYC medical team says it has performed first complete surgical transplant of a trachea
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 6, 2021 8:18 AM CDT
Updated Apr 10, 2021 4:10 PM CDT

(Newser) – In 2014, Sonia Sein was hospitalized after a bad asthma attack. The resulting intubation damaged her windpipe, and multiple surgeries didn't help, so doctors finally cut a hole in her throat and inserted a tracheostomy tube. In the six years after, Sein still labored to breathe, forcing her to quit her job as a social worker and barely leave her Bronx apartment, per the New York Times. She considered having the tube removed, meaning almost certain death. Now, however, she's got a new lease on life: Her medical team says it has performed the first successful direct transplant of a complete trachea into Sein, from an unnamed male donor. The 18-hour procedure was led by Mount Sinai's Dr. Eric Genden, who had been trying for years to solve the challenges of a trachea transplant, with its "long history of disappointments," NPR notes. Partial resectionings have been successful, but replacement of longer sections "has become a great challenge in thoracic surgery," per a 2020 article.

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One major issue is ensuring blood flow to the trachea after it's been transplanted. For years, doctors had thought the windpipe took in blood from a highly complex system of tiny blood vessels that would be impossible to reconnect to the trachea once it was transplanted. Genden, however, found out that assumption was wrong: Larger blood vessels that passed through the thyroid and esophagus also routed blood into the trachea, so he not only transplanted the donor's trachea into Sein, but also its attached esophagus, thyroid gland, and thyroid arteries. "It's kind of the holy grail of what we've all been after," Genden tells NPR. Sein feels like she's gotten her life back, now able to play with her grandkids and mulling becoming an acupuncturist. "We would have been planning my funeral, but now we're planning a birthday party," she says of her 57th birthday next month, per the Times. Read more here on the Italian surgeon who claimed to have revolutionized trachea transplants using stem cells over a decade ago, but whose patients mostly ended up dying. (Read more uplifting news stories.)

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