TODAY | April 30, 2013
>>> 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.