Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Google Brain Transplants

My news aggregator caught this story because it features an airline, and while it isn't really airline news, I want to blog about it.

The synopsis is that a surgical team managed to grow a new windpipe for a patient who was dying of tuberculosis, using a donor windpipe from a deceased person, and stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow. They chemically stripped the cells from the donor windpipe, then convinced the stem cells to become cartilage and regrow a new windpipe using the template provided by what was left of the old one. (Biology-type people, please tell me what is left when you remove cells from a biological part. Dirt? I was under the impression that a human being was entirely composed of cells).

Stem cell research mainly makes it into the news when it's involved in the ethical question of using foetal tissue for research. It's bandied around by politicians as a theoretical, so I'm embarrassed by how taken by surprise I am by the present practical application of this research. The smiling 30-year-old woman in the linked article is breathing today because someone grew her a body part in a laboratory. Why has this not been on the front page of my newspaper? This is huge. I'm sure I have doctors and biologists among my readers. Is this not a medical advance as great as any in the history of medicine?

Airplanes come into this because the windpipe was grown in Bristol, England while the patient was in Barcelona, Spain and the whole thing could only survive for a few hours outside of the laboratory or patient. The airline refused permission to take the human tissue onto the airplane. (More than 100 mL of fluid, I presume). There must be a policy for transport of donor organs that could be tapped, and I have to fault the medical staff for not prearranging transport before taking the windpipe out of the laboratory, but they did solve the problem.

Someone knew someone who had a PPL and they managed to scare up a private airplane and pilot and get everything to the right place in time to do the surgery.

Oh and speaking of advances in medicine, I saw the most recent X-Files movie and damn, that was painful watching Scully the brain surgeon do her medical research by typing "stem cell therapy" into Google the day before the operation.

17 comments:

Peter said...

Long time reader, first time poster and all that. Cartilage consists mostly of extracellular matrix (i.e. stuff outside of cells) consisting of specific types of collagen. The cells are there to support the cartilage. There are also cells lining the inside of the trachea (where the air is). Wikipedia's article on cartilage is ok (the trachea is made of hyaline cartilage, if I remember correctly), although the article on the trachea seems based on a very dry medical text.

I believe they went through the trouble of removing the donor's cells to prevent problems with tissue rejection. The recipient's immune system would recognize cells as being foreign. However, cartilage is essentially identical in all humans and would not pose a problem.

I believe there has been some other attempts at growing cartilage in the lab for ear reconstructions, but I'm not sure how far they've gone. Still, a pretty neat extension of experimental medicine.

As for the X-files movie, I managed to enjoy it for what it was. It would have been an average monster of the week type episode. I hear you wrt the google search. But science/medicine as presented in film and television is often far from real. If I could do science as quickly as the folks on CSI can, my PhD would have taken years less!

Chris Prosser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zb said...

The Scully-and-Google thing is probably only there to proof how much Google as a data-gathering institution has left the FBI far behind already ;-)

Aviatrix said...

Thank you Peter. I had thought that the entirety of a biological organism was composed of cells, so that confused me. I did understand that removal of the donor's cells prevented rejection.

dpierce said...

On this subject, I recommend "Your Inner Fish", a great little read that discusses how all the non-cellular bits and biological "glue" that gives us structure (hydroxyapatite and collagen, etc) evolved and is differentiated between the species. Great for archaeology & biology nuts.

Callsign Echo said...

That is really exciting. Stem cell regeneration sounds like something out of a medical sci-fi! Religious beliefs aside, I know the idea of using fetal tissue gives a lot of ppl the willies. I had no idea that adult's even had stem cells. It's wonderful to think that the moral issue could be resolved before it even starts. Good job on the layman's terms, Peter. I think many of us pilots have paid much closer attn to the anatomy of airplanes than our own species. Shame on us, but what can we do? I just find performing an engine rebuild far more appealing than say, open heart surgery. Plus, malpractice suits are less likely...

Sarah said...

CC's readers are way better than google. We're google with education & judgement. :) Thank you Peter.

As much as it would give me pause to see my surgeon googling a technique, I think the day of a worldwide shared info pool is here and won't go away. What would we do without the ability to recollect & expand on partially recalled info bits without google?

"The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. ... This new all-human cerebrum need not be concentrated in any one single place. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba." -- H. G. Wells, 1938

Aviatrix said...

Ironically, this morning I couldn't remember the name of the movie in which a guy goes to Mars and his eyeballs bulge out of his sockets when he is ejected from the pressurized habitat.

The first hit on Google for "Mars bulging eyeballs" had the name of the movie in the title of the webpage. If you don't know what's ironic about me needing to Google for that, you don't remember the name of the movie either.

Anonymous said...

Ho - so I also found it surprising that medical staff had not cleared carriage on the aircraft prior to attempting to board - and they had - alledgedly - by telephone with airline in advance . Of course these were not the same staff that were on duty at check in . It is reported that the senior medical rep became so irate that he was very nearly arrested - after which there was probably no way they would be able to board the flight and time being of the essence they improvised instead - brilliantly - albeit luckily . As a footnote the airline apparently offered to reimburse their fares ! As often there is probably a subtext somewhere herein - to do with personalities perhaps ?

syclerne said...

The airline I flew for routinely carried "spare parts" on the flight deck in special picnic coolers which were hand-delivered and picked up by ambulance technicians.

All very well organized. I wonder why this operation was such a snuffle-up?

Aviatrix said...

Dunno. I flew for an airline that often carried human blood. Flight crew would hand carry the cooler to the cargo pick-up area and call the blood services people, who would send a car for it.

Claire said...

Thank Peter, I'm a second year Bio Science student and wasn't sure of the answer.
It should have been front page news, but sadly most papers prefer the doom and gloom of the world.

Anonymous said...

It was a very big news story here in the UK.

Aviatrix said...

It should have been front page news.

Thank you Claire. That was my reaction. "Whoa! What else have I missed if this is a tiny story I only see in a Google Alert?"

Anonymous said...

You don't see this story in the general media because the stem cells came from the patient, not from an embryo. In another words, this is not a politically correct story. Almost all successful advances in stem cell research come from using the patient's own stem cells.

Paul B said...

I just googled "Mars bulging eyeballs" to see what you found... funnily enough, THIS PAGE was second in the list :-)

majroj said...

They grew a new external ear for a mouse...on its back. Not the best way to go. (Brings to mind the old Egytian practice for addressing a syphlitic nose by making a skin flap on the forearm, sewing it in place on the nose, but leaving the arm closely attached to the face for "tissue life support" until the graft "took"..probably while the spirochaetes were crying in their little voices, "Lunch!").

HG Wells!! Now we can can add him at the head of the line (which includes Vernor Vinge)as folks predicting the Internet and virtual reality/diseminated hologramic "memory".
Trouble is, as David Brin noted, it can also be a "web of lies".