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Human Brilliance Builds Trachea, Human Idiocy Won't Let It On A Plane

This article is more than 7 years old.
Ayodhya Ouditt/NPR
Ayodhya Ouditt/NPR

If you missed this great yarn from NPR's national treasure Robert Krulwich, you missed a real treat. Here's the salt of it: Brilliant scientists custom-engineer a human trachea...but their efforts to use it to help a desperate patient in Spain are almost foiled by Neanderthal airport security types who say the bottle containing the trachea is over the 100 milliliter limit and can't be brought on a plane. (Oops, now that it looks like Neanderthals may have created ancient cave paintings, I may be insulting them by comparing them with certain airport guards.) All ends well — the scientists hire a small private jet — if expensively.

Here's a choice chunk, including our local angle:

Now comes the We've Never Done This Before part: The trachea was then "dipped" into a bath of Claudia's cells, to see if they would attach.

A company in America, Harvard Bioscience Inc., of Holliston, Mass., makes a shoebox-sized "bioreactor" for just this purpose. It looks like a rotisserie for barbecuing chickens.

Birchall and his team took the new trachea, mounted it onto a rotating drum, and then dropped it into a nutrient medium so Claudia's cells would grow and spread, then lifted it out, so the cells could get oxygen, then dumped it back in again. In, out, in out, until ... the underlying Y-shaped scaffold was covered with Claudia's cells. This trachea now was Totally Claudia on the outside.

That done, Birchall's team booked the only direct flight from Bristol to Barcelona, operated by an airline called easyJet. Birchall insists he had "several conversations" with the airline to make sure everything would go smoothly. The trachea had 16 hours to get into Claudia. That's when easyJet said no.

Read the full story here.

This program aired on June 20, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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