Part of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, the Roman Catholic hospital considers the operation part of their mission to provide charity care, but also views it as a way to champion a type of stem-cell therapy that doesn't involve human embryos, the surgeons said. The Catholic church opposes using stem cells derived from human embryos in research or treatment.
Macchiarini has been involved in 14 previous windpipe operations using patients' own stem cells - five using man-made scaffolds like Hannah's but in adults; and nine using scaffolds made from cadaver windpipes, including one in a 10-year-old British boy.
He said only one patient died, a 30-year-old man from Abingdon, Md., who had the operation in November 2011 to treat late-stage cancer of the windpipe. He died about four months later of uncertain causes, Macchiarini said.
Similar methods have been used to grow bladders, urethras and last year a girl in Sweden got a lab-made vein using her own stem cells and a cadaver vein.
Scientists hope to eventually use the method to create solid organs, including kidneys and livers, said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He said the operation on Hannah Warren "is really showing that the technique is workable."
Hannah had breathing difficulties at birth and Korean doctors soon discovered the missing windpipe. They reconfigured her esophagus so that a breathing tube could go down it from her mouth to her lungs. The esophagus normally runs behind the windpipe and carries food to the stomach.
Korean doctors said she couldn't live long with the tube and told her parents there was nothing more they could do.
Hannah outlived their expectations and has thrived despite the grim prognosis and other abnormalities including an undeveloped voice box that prevented her from speaking. Now that she has a windpipe and can breathe more normally, doctors expect the larynx to grow and function normally. She will work with speech therapists to help her learn to talk.
Holterman said Hannah will likely need a new windpipe in about five years, as she grows.
She breathes with help from a ventilator but no longer has a tube in her mouth that she'd lived with since shortly after birth, Holterman said. She's not yet able to eat normally, but doctors let her have her first taste ever of food - a few licks on a lollipop. Her father said she already has discriminating taste and prefers chocolate Korean lollipops to the American kind.
"I asked her, `Is it good?' " he said, "and she immediately nodded her head."