Adult stem cells promise to ‘revolutionise’ surgery

A woman has been given a new windpipe grown from her own stem cells in an advance which scientists say will transform medical thinking.

They say this latest breakthrough in stem cell research, which avoids the destruction of human embryos, heralds “a new age in surgical care”.

Colombian mother-of-two Claudia Castillo, who now lives in Barcelona, was told she may lose a lung after tuberculosis caused the collapse of one of the tubes connecting her windpipe to her lungs.

But a UK team of scientists in Bristol were able to help repair the tube by growing a new section in the laboratory from Miss Castillo’s own stem cells.

The cells were encouraged to develop around the bare frame of a donor windpipe. The piece was then cut to size and fitted into Miss Castillo’s own windpipe.

One of the researchers said: “This successful treatment manifestly demonstrates the potential of adult stem cells to save lives.”

The breakthrough comes just weeks after Parliament passed new legislation liberalising embryo research, despite evidence that time and funding would be better spent on work using adult stem cells.

Scientists who want to be able to use human embryos in their research insist that embryonic stem cells have extra features not found in adult stem cells.

But Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, who led the team that created Dolly the Sheep, has this week championed the use of induced pluripotent (IP) stem cells – adult cells that have been given the characteristics of those taken from embryos.

“These cells have the benefits of both embryo-derived stem cells and cells from the tissues of the patient,” he wrote.

One major advantage, he says, is that a patient’s immune system is less likely to reject IP stem cells derived from their own body.

Prof Wilmut turned away from research using embryos last year, opting instead for non-embryonic work because he decided it looked more promising.

The Government has justified the liberalising measures in the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act – given Royal Assent just last week – as necessary to push the UK to the forefront of stem cell technology.

But one of the UK’s leading stem cell researchers recently left the country with his team, explaining that an over-emphasis on embryonic research was hindering progress with adult stem cells.

Professor Colin McGuckin said he decided to work in France because it has a “much more reasoned balance” between embryonic and adult stem cell research, and a “much better environment” both to “cure and treat more people” and to “do good work”.

He said: “The bottom line is my vocation is to work with patients and help patients and unfortunately I can’t do that in the UK.”

During debates on the new legislation MPs were warned that the UK risked becoming a “rogue state” by allowing so much experimentation on human embryos.