Thursday 17 January 2019

Womb taken out of mother to treat baby before birth

The womb with baby inside is operated on by surgeons
The womb with baby inside is operated on by surgeons

Sarah Knapton

It might look like a glowing alien egg, but this red ovoid is actually a human womb containing a baby, removed temporarily from its mother before birth, in a groundbreaking operation.

Doctors in the US 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. The condition leaves sufferers unable to walk, with fluid build-up in the brain, lack of bladder control and other complications.

Foetal surgery for spina bifida has been common since the Nineties, 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 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.

“We were looking at brain damage, feeding tubes, a breathing tube, a wheelchair, just a bad quality of life,” Mrs Royer told ‘The New York Times’.

“It’s not done, by any means, but I definitely feel it’s the right thing for us. Seeing the ultrasound and how good he’s doing, moving his ankles and feet, it’s such a happy moment. I can’t imagine going on further in the pregnancy not knowing every day what damage is being done. It’s such a relief to move forward.”

During the three-hour operation at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Mr Belfort opened Mrs Royer’s abdomen but instead of cutting into the uterus, removed the whole womb. He then made two slits in the womb, one for a fetoscope – a tiny camera designed to light up and film inside – and another for surgical tools.

Doctors pumped in carbon dioxide to keep the uterus buoyant, giving them room to work and allowing them to see the spine more easily.

After injecting the foetus with anaesthetic, the team moved skin over the exposed spinal cord and stitched it in place. Doctors then refilled the womb with saltwater and placed it back into Mrs Royer.

To develop the procedure, Dr Belfort and colleague Dr 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 & Gynaecology’ following 28 successful operations in which no foetuses 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.

Dr Belfort is now helping to train colleagues at Stanford University.

However, some doctors have warned that pumping the womb with carbon dioxide during the procedure could damage the baby and cause neurological problems in later life.

Dr Katie Morris, senior clinical lecturer and consultant in maternal foetal medicine, University of Birmingham, said: “All of these techniques are exciting and novel in that they give an option for in-utero therapy.”

Mrs Royer’s baby is due in January. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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