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Two unborn babies first undergo spinal surgery in the UK



Weeks before they even took their first breaths, two babies were having surgeons surgically repair their spinal cord in the UK's first surgeries of their kind.

Spina Bifida operations were successfully performed on two babies this summer by a team at London University College Hospital while still in the womb.

Spina bifida is usually treated after childbirth, but research shows that repairing the baby's spine can stop the loss of cerebrospinal fluid and lead to better long-term health and mobility outcomes.

  Baby Has Spina Bifida in the Womb Frankie Lavis, from Plymouth, was the first child to undergo revolutionary spinal surgery in Belgium in 2013 (Plymouth Hospital NHS Trust / PA)

A 30-member team conducted the two operations, coordinated by UCL Professor Anne David, who has been working for three years to make the procedure available to patients in the UK.

She said that mothers had to travel to the US, Belgium, or Switzerland earlier for the procedure.

"It's fantastic, women do not have to leave the UK now," said Prof David.

"You can have your family with them, there are less costs, so all good things."

The UCLH and Great Ormond Street Hospital surgical team previously traveled to Belgium to train at a facility in Leuven where more than 40 such surgeries were performed.

Spina bifida is a disease that develops during pregnancy when the bones of the spine do not form properly and form a gap that leaves the spinal cord unprotected.

It can cause a baby's spinal fluid to leak and jeopardize the brain's development, possibly leading to long-term health and mobility problems.

Every year more than 200 children in the UK are born with spina bifida, according to the charity Shine.

The introduction of prenatal surgery in the UK is taking place after a major US test has confirmed the benefits of the Health and Mobility process.

This study showed a 50% reduction in the need to introduce shunts into the brain to drain fluid, a procedure that causes long-term complications.

Brain and motor functions are improved for non-shunted children, researchers said.

Children in the US study were also more independent after the operation, Prof David said.

"There were some children who grew up after a fetal surgery who went for a walk and would not expect them to leave if they did not have it," she said.

"It is important to be able to offer surgery to patients here in the UK."

During the procedure, a cut is made in the uterus at a precise location to access the baby's spine and close the gap created by spina bifida.

The surgery, which lasts about 90 minutes, carries the risk of premature labor, but less invasive keyhole methods are being explored.

"We have given the mother some medications to help her relax, but there is still a risk," said Prof David.

She said that a "fetoscopic" approach is being developed in the hope that this will further minimize maternal complications.

Operations will be available to eligible patients through the newly established prenatal therapy center at UCLH and GOSH, which will be funded by £ 450,000 from the hospital's charities.

"These vital assets have trained the surgical team and will fund the operation for the first 10 patients," said Professor Donald Peebles, Clinical Director for Women's Health at UCLH.

Frankie Lavis from Plymouth became the first British baby in 2013 to undergo the revolutionary operation in Belgium.


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