Discovering New Treatments for Lung and Airway Diseases

The creation of a trachea engineered from stem cells that can be transplanted in people with lung or airway diseases is being pioneered by physicians at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals. The promising technology will be presented at the Society of Thoracic Surgeons 50th Annual Meeting in Orlando in late January by a team led by Faiz Bhora, MD, Director of Thoracic Surgical Oncology and Thoracic Surgery Research at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals.

Dr. Bhora, also Co-Director of the Mount Sinai Health System’s Airway Center of New York, says there is a pressing need for such a device, since the standard of care now calls for patients to undergo a tracheotomy, in which incisions are made in the neck and trachea. A tube is then inserted into the airway, allowing patients to breathe without the use of their nose or mouth. However, patients cannot talk, and they constantly run the risk of infections in and around the tube.

Creating the new trachea involves taking a biological membrane, seeding it with stem cell solution, and priming the stem cells by adding growth factors that transform the cells into cartilage precursors. Since the stem cells are derived from the patient’s body, the transplanted trachea would be well tolerated.

The new procedure was performed on a baby pig three months ago, and Dr. Bhora reports that the results have been promising. Since then, he says, “the pig has tripled in weight and doubled in size.” He adds, “The collateral benefit is that it appears the trachea is able to keep up with growth, which has positive implications for using this in children.”

In addition to using stem cells, Dr. Bhora and his team of postdoctoral fellows are experimenting with the use of 3D printing. They are looking to create a customized trachea out of a biologic material approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Researchers around the world have begun using new 3D bioprinting technology to create structures such as ears and heart valves from living tissue. Dr. Bhora estimates that within the next two to three years he will know whether the use of 3D printing is useful in creating a trachea. “Our strength lies in that fact that we are surgeons and clinicians first; and our research is done always with a mind to use new scientific advances to improve the lives of patients,” he says.

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