Helping bring a new procedure across from Belgium into the NHS A team of 30 carried out the two operations, which were coordinated by University College London (UCL) professor Anne David, who has been working for three years with a UK consultant to bring the procedure to patients in the UK.
She said mothers previously had to travel to the US, Belgium or Switzerland for the procedure.
“It’s fantastic. Women now don’t have to travel out of the UK,” she said.
”They can have their family with them. There are less expenses. So all good things.”
A pair of unborn babies have had their spines repaired while they were still in the womb in what is the first operation of its kind in the UK. Weeks before the babies took their first breaths, a team at London’s University College Hospital successfully performed the spina bifida surgery.
The birth defect, where there is incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord, is usually treated after the baby is born. But research shows repairing the baby’s spine earlier can stop the loss of spinal fluid and lead to better long-term health and mobility.
The surgery team from UCL and Great Ormond Street Hospital previously travelled to Belgium to train at a facility in Leuven, where more than 40 such operations have been carried out.
Spina bifida is a condition that develops during pregnancy when the bones of the spine do not form properly, creating a gap that leaves the spinal cord unprotected. It can cause a baby’s spinal fluid to leak and put brain development at risk, potentially leading to long-term health and mobility problems.
During the procedure, an incision is made in the womb in a precise location to access the baby’s spine and stitch closed the gap caused by spina bifida. The surgery, which takes 90 minutes, carries a risk of premature labour but less invasive keyhole methods are being explored.
“We put the mum on some drugs that help relax them, but there is still a risk,” Professor David said.
More than 200 children are born with spina bifida every year in the UK, according to the charity Shine, which provides information and advice about spina bifida and hydrocephalus to individuals, families and carers.
The surgeries will be available for suitable patients through the newly established Centre for Prenatal Therapy at UCLH and GOSH, made possible by funding of £450,000 from the hospitals’ charities.