TODAY   |  April 30, 2013

Girl, 2, makes medical history with stem cell surgery

Born with no windpipe, Hannah Warren was kept alive for two and a half years by a tube inserted from her mouth into her lung, spending her life in an intensive care unit until this month when she became the first child to receive an artificial windpipe grown with her own stem cells. NBC’s Meredith Vieira reports.

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>>> back now at 7:43 with a medical breakthrough. surgeons at the children's hospital of illinois will announce the first of its kind surgery on a child and not without controversy. here's meredith vieira .

>> here we go. see? look at that.

>> reporter: she's the radiant little girl whose sparkling personality has always defied the rare deadly disorder she was born with. o mister sun, sun

>> we'd get phone calls from the hospital. i'd say, did she die? it was like a nightmare.

>> reporter: born with no windpipe hannah warren was kept alive for two and a half years by a tube inserted from her mouth into her lungs. she spent her life in this neo natal intensive care unit in seoul, south carolina , unable to breathe, talk, swallow, eat or drink on her own.

>> reporter: but last month she was flown 13 hours to peoria, illinois , where she's become the first child in the world to receive an artificial windpipe grown with stem cells from her own body.

>> this is the page-turning in science. this is like the first organ transplant , like penicillin. we are turning the page in medicine.

>> this little girl was a prisoner. now she has a chance to have a relatively normal life .

>> reporter: the operation was performed three weeks ago by an international team of surgeons at the children's hospital of illinois . lead surgeon dr. macarinni of italy made transplant history before. in 2011 he gave this cancer patient the world's first bio artificial trachea made from a plastic scaffold seeded with the man's own stem cells . but hannah was his youngest patient yet. he's a dad himself, which made the nine-hour operation especially challenging.

>> when it comes to children, it's different. it's very hard.

>> reporter: in that moment that hannah 's in the operating room, in a way, does she become your daughter?

>> no. she become it s the most important person in the world at that moment that i need to care about.

>> reporter: because no organ donor was used it virtually eliminates the chance of hannah 's immune system rejecting the transplant. already the stem cells are changing to become airway cells.

>> that's like magic. in a nine-day period those cells had already changed.

>> reporter: that moment when you saw the cells had done what you were hoping they would do in the trachea, how did you respond?

>> i was very, very much touched. in fact, i cried.

>> reporter: the field of regenerative medicine which, for decades, has been promising a future of ready-made organs built in the lab is still controversial. critics say the science is too new, questioning whether an operation like this is too exe pe -- experimental. you are dealing with a lot of nay sayers.

>> so what.

>> the first 79 patients all died. everyone said he was nuts. was he? christian bernard started doing heart transplants. everyone threw rocks at him. you're looking at the beginning.

>> reporter: for hannah , her dad, mom and older sister, it's nothing short of miraculous.

>> there was a time we didn't have hope. we never dreamed that any of this could happen. it did.

>> it's very incredible.

>> for her to be a pioneer and a driving force for this to happen, it's really cool. that's my girl!

>> reporter: for "today," meredith vieira , nbc news.

>> in the coming months meredith will have hannah 's full journey in an exclusive special.