Doctors in the U.S. have been pioneering an astonishing new treatment for spina bifida in which the baby is operated on before birth.
Spina bifida occurs when a baby’s spine and spinal cord do not develop properly, causing a gap in the spine. It affects 24 babies in 100,000. There are 14,000 people in Britain living with the condition, which leaves sufferers unable to walk, with fluid build-up in the brain, lack of bladder control and other complications.
Fetal surgery for spina bifida has been common since the 90’s, but trying to repair the spine while the baby is still inside its mother is fraught with difficulty and cutting into the womb risks premature birth.
Now Dr Michael Belford, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, has developed a new technique to remove the baby and womb so that any spinal defect can be fixed before amniotic fluid eats away further at the gap in the spinal nerve tissue.
Although the womb is still attached to the mother, once outside her body doctors can drain it, light it up and operate through tiny incisions.
One of the first operations was performed last month on hairdresser Lexi Royer, 28, who was initially offered an abortion, but chose instead to take part in the experimental surgery when her baby was 24 weeks old. …
To develop the procedure Belfort and colleague Whitehead spent two years practising on sheep and a rubber ball with a doll inside, wrapped in chicken skin to mimic the defect in spina bifida.
The team is now reporting on its work in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology following 28 successful operations in which no fetuses have died, and only a few have needed shunts to drain fluid from the brain. Some of the mothers have also not even needed caesarean sections. …
Royer’s baby is due in January.