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New hope for babies born without esophagus

HOUSTON – A new breakthrough in the use of stem cells. This time it could help patients without an esophagus.

Whether it's from cancer or a birth defect, many people need a new esophagus and current operations can have many complications, including death.

The condition some babies are born with is called esophageal atresia.

The babies are born without an esophagus and therefore no way to eat.

Eleven-month-old Lincoln from Santa Fe was born without an esophagus and required emergency surgery at Clear Lake Regional almost immediately after he was born.

"He had to have a chest tube in for about a week, so we couldn't hold him for a week," his mother, Ashley Pratt, said.

It's a complicated condition that will have to be monitored for the rest of his life so he does not choke.

"It will grow, but it will stricture. So as he grows, there's a potential for where they repaired it to get really narrow," Pratt said. "They made us take an infant CPR class. You have to watch for symptoms and signs of choking, of a lot of extra reflux or pain."

The chief medical officer at Biostage, Dr. Saverio La Francesca, said that's because the standard treatments for this condition require surgeons to reshape a person’s stomach into a tube or remove part of the intestine to create a mock esophagus.

"The problem with the current surgery is when you attach together the esophagus of the patient to the stomach of the patient, you can have fluid leaking ... and then you can have an infection," Dr. La Francesa said.

La Francesca said something better is on the horizon, because he says he can create an esophagus by putting the patient's own stem cells around a paper tube and surgically implanting that tube. By doing that, he says, it can grow and attach itself in patients, eliminating many complications in people with esophageal cancer and esophageal atresia.

"The cells are stimulating your own esophagus to grow and three weeks later your own esophagus is grown over this tube and has reconstituted its own integrity. By then, a different paradigm than what has been done before, [the paper] is ready to be taken out," La Francesca said.

La Francesca says his method helps to seal the space from the windpipe to the stomach better than current procedures.

Meaning babies like Lincoln might not have to visit the ER each time they hit a growth spurt.

Lincoln has been taken to the hospital three times since his original surgery, but his mom says he's doing the best now that he ever has. He's got a good appetite and is almost ready for solid food, but not without a healthy dose of fear.

"Anything that goes near his mouth, no matter what it is, whether it's milk, water, food, you just watch him like a hawk," Pratt said.

La Francesa said he's on the verge of clinical trials with the bioengineered esophagus. He expects them to be in human patients by the end of the year.