Babies' spines corrected while still in the womb in rare and promising surgery

Children that underwent the pre-birth surgery had better brain and motor function long-term.

Two unborn babies underwent a spinal repair procedure while still in their mother’s womb, in what could be the first surgery of its kind at the London University College Hospital.

The surgery was intended to correct spina bifida, where part of the growing spinal column fails to form correctly. This often leaves a gap in the baby’s spinal column, through which spinal fluid could leak, putting normal brain development of the baby at risk.

Spina bifida causes potentially life threatening in some cases where the deformity makes the unborn fetus more prone to infections.

The treatment for spina bifida is usually given once the baby is born. However, there is evidence to indicate that repair of the spine and nerves is faster if the surgery is performed sooner. It could mean better long-term health and movement in spina bifida children as they grow.

A team of 30 doctors carried out the two complex surgeries. It involved making a small incision in the mother’s womb — just enough to access the baby’s spine. The spine is then stitched together at regions where an exposed gap is found, and sealed.

 Babies spines corrected while still in the womb in rare and promising surgery

Spina Bifida is among the most common birth defects in children worldover.

“Closure of spina bifida in the womb using this method is an alternative to postnatal surgery, and has been shown to improve short and medium-term outcomes,” said Jan Deprest, fetal surgeon at the University College London Hospital.

The 90-minute operation entails a certain risk of premature labor due to the invasive nature of the surgery on the womb. Researchers at the hospital and University College of London are exploring less invasive ‘keyhole’ methods to avoid a premature birth.

The researchers associated with the surgery said that there was a 50 percent drop in the need for corrective surgery to drain excess fluid from the baby’s brain after birth. This consequently brings down long-term complications from performing brain surgery at early stages of growth and development.

The research also showed that the children that underwent the procedure had better brain and motor function without the post-birth surgery.

“While neither intervention is fully curative, in fetal surgery, the defect is closed earlier, which prevents damage to the spinal cord in the last third of pregnancy," said Deprest.

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