Artificial Vein Transplant

A new type of blood vessel made in a laboratory may soon improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. 

While man-made veins are nothing new, a Virginia man has become the first in the U.S. to receive an implant that becomes functionally alive in animals. Dr. Jeffrey Lawson of Duke University Hospital performed the surgery June 5 on 62-year-old Lawrence Breakley.

Unlike previous artificial veins made of Teflon or other plastics, these vessels are pliable like the natural kind and do not cause blood clots, saving patients from frequent hospitalizations. What's more, the body does not reject these artificial veins, as can happen with organs and tissues transplanted from other humans. 

The vessel, which does not require special storage and can be placed on a hospital shelf, was the brainchild of Lawson and Yale School of Medicine faculty member Dr. Laura Niklason, co-founder of a Durham, N.C.-based company called Humacyte.

The vessel created by Niklason and Lawson is made of donated human cells grown on a tubular scaffolding. The proteins in between the cells make collagen and other molecules. “Collagen has no markers,” Niklason told Healthline. “Your collagen is the same as my collagen.”

The cells are washed away at the end of the growth process, removing any traces that the tissue came from somebody else and preventing rejection.

Breakley suffers from end-stage kidney disease and has required dialysis for many years. Lawson implanted the vein in Breakley's arm to connect to an artery and to speed the flow of blood during his treatments.

The procedure may also work for heart bypass surgeries, Lawson said, and eventually could lead to bioengineered livers, kidneys, and eyes. “It really is remarkable,” he said.

Trials and Tribulations

Although clinical trials have just begun in the U.S., surgeons in Poland have already implanted the artificial veins in 13 people. Lawson said doctors want to make sure the vessels do not deteriorate over time.

The first patient in Poland received the vein six months ago, Lawson said. “The ones in Poland have worked very well, with no sign of adverse effects due to the nature of the materials they are made of," he said. "We're going to confirm everything with the most intense microscope in the U.S. that we can.”

Niklason said she is excited to see almost two decades of work come to fruition. “Developing these arteries has taken a lot of twists and turns," she said. "It certainly hasn't gone in a straight line.”

In the 1990s, Niklason served on the faculty at Duke University and Lawson was finishing his surgical residency there. “We were in the operating room finishing up on a patient, but the recovery room was full,” she said. “We had to sit with each other and the patient for an hour or more with time to kill, so we started talking about research interests.”

The conversation continued for years and led to the new, cutting-edge vein implanted in Breakley just days ago.

Niklason expects that the new vessels will be widely available in three to four years. “We hope these engineered tissues will function better than other synthetic vascular grafts,” she said. “If they do function better than current plastic grafts I think they eventually will be widely accepted.”

Meanwhile, Breakley told Healthline he is feeling good and does not mind being a guinea pig for the new technology. “You know, I see it like this. If it's going to help somebody in the future, then I'm behind it,” he said.

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