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A TEENAGER WITH GUTS--AND NOW A CHEST

Sean G. McCormack has accepted the role of human guinea pig with incredible equanimity. The 16-year-old sophomore from Norwood, Mass., is the first person with a lab-grown chest, inserted four years ago because he was born without any bones or cartilage on his left side. His feelings about this medical miracle covering his heart? ''I don't really think about it.''

According to his parents, John and Debra McCormack, Sean was equally cool both before and during the process. Although he was born with virtually no covering other than skin over his heart, Sean refused to wear any kind of chest protector as a child, even when he pitched his Little League team to a town championship. His parents only placed two restrictions on him. ''We wouldn't let him play football or hockey,'' says John.

But as Sean entered junior high, say his parents, he became far more self-conscious about how he looked -- the cartilage down the center of his sternum pointed out instead of in -- and started asking his doctors what could be done. They referred him to Dr. Joseph Upton, a plastic surgeon at Children's Hospital in Boston who works closely with Dr. Joseph P. Vacanti, a tissue engineering pioneer. To Vacanti, the need to do something right away for Sean seemed obvious: ''He was a baseball pitcher. We were worried that if he took a direct hit to the chest, it would kill him.''

'SEAN'S DECISION.' After numerous meetings with the family, Upton, Vacanti, and team agreed in 1994 to try shaving off cartilage cells from Sean and using them to growing living cartilage in the shape of his chest. ''They didn't have to convince me or my husband,'' says Debra. ''This was Sean's decision. It's what he wanted to do.'' The original plan was to submit Sean to only two surgeries -- one to cut away his protutruding cartilage, the second to implant the new chest. Unfortunately, the plastic used to take a mold of Sean's torso was too hot and burned him. He has had several operations since to correct the resultant scarring.

Technically, the doctors did not grow a chest, which consists of boths bones and cartilage, but a cartilage ''shield'' in the shape of a chest. After the shield was implanted, Sean recalls that his torso felt somewhat numb. It didn't help that the results were hidden from him for a few weeks beneath a cocoon of bandages. Today, though, he says he rarely thinks about the origins of his new chest. In fact, he says, it didn't take him long at all to realize ''I don't need to be cautious any more.''

Sean's parents are obviously proud of their son. ''He really wanted to do this because he figured that, even if it didn't work, it might help somebody else down the line,'' says John. A circulation manager at The Boston Globe, John doesn't even mind that Sean regularly risks his neck on dirt bikes and mountains bikes. ''It didn't make Dr. Vacanti very happy, though, when he heard about it,'' admits John. But not everything has changed: Football and hockey are still off-limits.

By Catherine Arnst in Boston



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