Claudia Castillo: Paolo Macchiarini’s First Patient is Alive Today

Image Credit: Hospital Clinic of Barcelona

The emergence of Paolo Macchiarini in the 2000s was initially met with widespread celebration in the field of medical science. His groundbreaking work positioned him as a beacon of innovation, particularly in the realm of organ transplants, with a focus on trachea transplants that involved the regeneration of patients’ stem cells on the transplanted organ. The revolutionary nature of Macchiarini’s approach garnered significant attention, and in 2008, Claudia Castillo made history as the first woman to undergo this transformative procedure.

Claudia’s story, which is a part of Peacock’s ‘Dr. Death: Cutthroat Conman,’ marked by the successful trachea transplant, broke through the news, capturing widespread attention and contributing to the growing optimism surrounding the possibilities of regenerative medicine but that was not the entirety of Claudia’s journey.

Who is Claudia Castillo?

Claudia Castillo, a Colombian woman born in 1977 and residing in Barcelona, faced health challenges in 2005 when she contracted a tuberculosis infection, leading to constricted airways. Seeking medical intervention, she visited the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, where she encountered Paolo Macchiarini. Macchiarini administered treatment through a resection with primary end-to-end anastomosis, a procedure that involved freeing her upper airway by removing a section of the blocked trachea and stitching the remaining parts together.

However, Claudia experienced another constriction in her left bronchus shortly thereafter, prompting Macchiarini to address the issue by utilizing an inflatable silicone tube as part of her medical care. In March 2005, Claudia Castillo received an inflatable silicone tube as part of her treatment, but due to recurring infections and cough, it had to be removed by April 2005. Over the next three years, there are allegations that Macchiarini neglected Claudia’s medical needs and failed to explore alternative options, although there are no official reports to substantiate these claims.

By 2007, Macchiarini, along with his close ally Martin Birchall, proposed a new approach to Claudia. They suggested a tubular tracheal homograft, a procedure involving taking a trachea from a deceased donor, stripping it of cells, and then bathing it in stem cells extracted from Claudia’s bone marrow before implanting it in her body. Claudia Castillo was provided with information about the proposed procedure, which supposedly had been tested on animals like pigs. However, it later surfaced that no concrete evidence or official documentation supporting the claim that such tests had indeed been conducted by Macchiarini.

Despite this uncertainty, Claudia gave her informed consent, although it is now apparent that she was not adequately informed. In November 2007, a trachea from a donor was located in Spain, and subsequently sent to Italy to undergo decellularization. The decellularized trachea was then sent to the University of Bristol, where Martin Birchall performed stem cell regeneration without the knowledge of the authorities at the lab at the School of Veterinary Sciences in Langford. Claudia underwent the operation on June 12, 2008, at the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, Spain.

Where is Claudia Castillo Now?

Image Credit: CNN

The success of Claudia’s operation was publicized in a Lancet paper authored by Macchiarini, catapulting him into the international spotlight as a pioneer in regenerative stem cell advancements. Claudia, in turn, became the emblem of what modern medicine could achieve. However, the celebratory narrative portrayed by the media sharply contrasted with Claudia’s reality. A mere three weeks after the operation, Claudia’s tracheal implant collapsed, necessitating the use of a stent to keep her airways open.

Claudia faced persistent challenges stemming from infections and the debris from the biodegradable stents, necessitating replacements every 3-4 months. In a cumbersome routine, she had to fly from Barcelona to Florence to receive new stents at Careggi. Despite the ongoing medical issues, Macchiarini maintained in the media that Claudia was always in good health. Claudia, however, took it upon herself to warn the next prospective patient, Paloma Cabeza, about her experiences, aiming to prevent her from undergoing a similar treatment.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with left vocal cord paralysis as a result of the botched-up surgery that Macchiarini had performed in 2005. After enduring eight years of physical, emotional, and financial hardship, Claudia, a mother of two, came back to the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona and demanded that her left lung be amputated. She has been living on one lung since then but has stabilized and remains one of the very few people who survived an encounter with Paolo Macchiarini.

Read More: Hannah Warren: How Did Paolo Macchiarini’s Youngest Patient Die?