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Airline staff almost stopped breakthrough transplant.

Byline: James Woodward

THE world's first windpipe transplant operation was nearly scuppered when budget airline staff refused to allow stem-cells onto a plane, it was revealed yesterday.

Prof Martin Birchall, who grew the cells for the revolutionary procedure, was forced to pay pounds 14,000 for a private plane after easyJet would not give flight clearance to Barcelona.

Prof Birchall, of Bristol University, said easyJet's last-minute "no" followed months of checking to ensure the priceless package was permitted to travel.

The team was left with 16 hours to get 30-year-old Claudia Castillo's cells to Spain so they paid pounds 14,000 to hire a jet.

The airline insisted it had no record of a request for security clearance to transport the cells, which are carried in liquid to protect them. But it has agreed to refund the flight costs "as a goodwill gesture".

In a pioneering project, stem cells from Mrs Castillo's bone marrow were used to create cartilage cells which were combined with part of a donor's windpipe, creating an artificial trachea.

The procedure was the world's first tissue-engineered whole organ transplant, usingawindpipe made with the mother-of-two's own stem cells.

Five months on, Mrs Castillo, from Colombia, is in good health and can now converse with her family without losing her breath.

She needed the transplant to save a lung after contracting tuberculosis.

A "furious" Prof Birchall said he was nearly arrested by armed police as he tried to explain the situation to staff.

EasyJet spokesman Andrew McConnell said yesterday that requests for cell and organ transport usually go through the company's call-centre in Poznan, Poland.

Doctors would then be advised to call the UK Transportation for Transplants (UKTFT), who would arrange clearance with the airline.

But in this case doctors are understood to have called the UK head office direct, he said.

Mr McConnell said although there was no record of a request to transport the stem cells anywhere in the files, he would "rule out" the possibility of administrative error.

Mr McConnell said: "We have an established process to transport human organs. We work with the United Kingdom Transportation for Transplants (UKTFT) which would contact our international flight control centre in Luton to inform us of an intention to transport organs.

"The police will also be involved to verify the origin of the consignment. A record of the request would have then logged onto the passengers booking.

"We do not have any record of the passenger's request to carry medical materials, however as a gesture of goodwill we have refunded the passenger for the cost of his easyJet flight."

There was just a 16-hour window during which the cells could be transported before they would become useless. For that reason Prof Birchall said he had several conversations with the airline to ensure things would go smoothly.

Prof Anthony Hollander, another of the scientists involved, said that after a lengthy debate, check-in workers refused to take the cargo fearing it could be "dangerous material".

"The clock was ticking as we'd taken the cells out of their culture media an hour before. We thought about driving to Barcelona but that would have taken too long.

"If we hadn't been able to get the cells there, we would have wasted years of work and this major breakthrough wouldn't have taken place."
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 21, 2008
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