SWEDEN: International stem-cell surgery surprise

Researchers at a conference in Sweden nearly fell off their chairs earlier this month when a Spanish scientist described stem cell-supported surgery that saw a woman's cancerous trachea removed, operated on in another country, and then restored to her.

Professor Paolo Macchiarini of the University of Barcelona described the surgery, which involved laboratories in the UK and Italy in addition to a clinic in Barcelona, at the Knowledge Triangle conference in Gothenburg.

The presentation took the audience by surprise as they were unaware that such stem cell-supported surgery was already a reality.

Macchiarini said the organ had to be transported in a special container by aeroplane between the laboratories involved, since no one institution had the necessary expertise and scientific equipment required.

He said the patient, a 31-year-old woman, was now back in work for the first time after six year's sick leave.

Macchiarini said the complexities of the surgery and stem cell cultivation for regenerating the trachea were exacerbated by the red-tape involved in moving a 'live organism' between European countries. The pilot of one airline refused to transport the organ and a special private plane had to be used at an extra cost for the project.

The scientist's real concern in Gothenburg was to draw the attention to the greater need for translational research between basic science and the clinical bedside of patients. Much greater emphasis on the interest of the patients had to be built into advanced life science training in Europe, he said.

Most research money was awarded to the more prestigious basic research, but to fully utilise the potential of stem cell development, medical training had to be reoriented toward the benefit of patients, he said.

The audience also discussed the development of stem cell research and clinical praxis in China and other Asian countries in particular, where laboratories do not have to work under the same restricted regulations as in Europe.

"I get a job offer every week from institutions in the far East or Korea," Macchiarini said.

* Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy director of research at the University of Bergen.