Respiratory tract fistulas (or fistulae) are abnormal communications between the respiratory system and the digestive tract or the adjacent organs. The origin can be congenital or, more frequently, iatrogenic and the clinical presentation is heterogeneous. Respiratory tract fistulas can lead to severely reduced health-related quality of life and short survival. Therapy mainly relies on endoscopic surgical interventions but patients often require prolonged hospitalization and may develop complications. Therefore, more conservative regenerative medicine approaches, mainly based on lipotransfer, have also been investigated. Adipose tissue can be delivered either as unprocessed tissue, or after enzymatic treatment to derive the cellular stromal vascular fraction. In the current narrative review, we provide an overview of the main tissue/cell-based clinical studies for the management of various types of respiratory tract fistulas or injuries. Clinical experience is limited, as most of the studies were performed on a small number of patients. Albeit a conclusive proof of efficacy cannot be drawn, the reviewed studies suggest that grafting of adipose tissue-derived material may represent a minimally invasive and conservative treatment option, alternative to more aggressive surgical procedures. Knowledge on safety and tolerability acquired in prior studies can lead to the design of future, larger trials that may exploit innovative procedures for tissue processing to further improve the clinical outcome.
Keywords: Adipose tissue; Airway defects restoration; Fistula; Head and neck; Lipotransfer; Mesenchymal stromal cells; Minimally invasive treatments; Regenerative medicine; Respiratory tract; Tracheoesophageal fistula.