Angela Irizarry, 5, was born with a heart that had just one functional pumping chamber
Entire organs are some way from being available, but minor body parts such as blood vessels are already being used with success.
One girl to have benefitted from the breakthrough is five-year-old Angela Irizarry from Pennsylvania.
She was born with a heart that had just one functional pumping chamber – known as a single-ventricle defect – a potentially lethal condition that starves the body of oxygen.
Standard treatment involves a series of operations, the last of which implants an artificial blood vessel near the heart to connect a vein to an artery, which effectively rearranges the organ’s plumbing.
However, the vessels often needs to be replaced as the child grows.
But Yale University surgeons attempted to create that the necessary vessel with Angela’s own bone marrow cells.
The technique had already worked for a series of patients in Japan, but Angela would be the first participant in an American study.
‘There was a risk,’ recalled Angela’s mother, Claudia. But she and her husband liked the idea that the implant would grow along with Angela, so that it wouldn’t have to be replaced later.
In 2001, over 12 hours, doctors took bone marrow from Angela and extracted certain cells, seeded them onto a 5-inch-long biodegradable tube, incubated them for two hours, and then implanted the graft into Angela to grow it into a blood vessel.
Since the operation and implant Angela has fared well. Before the surgery Claudia said she couldn’t run or play without getting tired and turning blue from lack of oxygen, she said. Now she sings, dances and dreams of becoming a firefighter – and a doctor.