News broke on Wednesday that in a UK first, doctors were able to perform complex spinal surgery on two babies who were still in the womb. The operation took place at University College Hospital in London by a team of 30 doctors from UCL and Great Ormond Street, who had trained and prepared at the University Hospital Leuven in Belgium for three years.
The surgery took place over the summer after the two babies were found to have spina bifida. The condition, which affects over 4.7 million people worldwide, translates from Latin as ‘split spine’. Shine, a UK-based charity supporting those born with the defect, explains that it occurs when the neural tube fails to close properly, which then prevents the vertebrae that protect the spinal cord from fully forming. As a result, the spinal cord and the delicate web of nerves within are damaged, which leads to a range of mobility issues.
“The procedure had clear risks”
Spina bifida comes in several types, each with their own level of severity, and is typically diagnosed during pregnancy or soon after birth. While surgery isn’t the only treatment option, it usually occurs prior to the 26th week of pregnancy to increase the baby’s chances of bettered long-term mobility.
Over the course of 90 minutes, doctors cut into the womb and carefully stitched together where the babies’ spines had failed to fully develop. The procedure had clear risks; the potential for the mother to go into premature labour or for the baby to be put in life-threatening danger was an important part of the surgery to be considered. Despite this, the surgeries were both deemed successes, and the mothers and babies were said to be ‘recovering well’.
“children who had not been expected to be able to walk had grown up to do just that”
The pioneering surgery was first trialled in the US before being made available in the UK at the UCL hospital and the Centre for Prenatal Therapy at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London. Previously, the operation was only available in the US, Switzerland, and Belgium. Over 320 of the procedures have been performed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia since 2011, and over 40 times in Belgium since 2012.
The US trial showed that post-surgery, the need for shunt insertion, which is commonly needed with those with spina bifida in order to drain fluid from the brain, was reduced by 50%. Research also proved that non-shunted children had more independence and improved brain and motor functions as a result of the early intervention. UCL’s Professor Anne David, who brought the procedure to the UK, was optimistic, stating that children who hadn’t been expected to be able to walk had grown up to do just that. ‘It’s important to be able to offer the surgery to patients here in the UK’, she said.
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