Surgery Before Birth

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POSTED: Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 10:48am

UPDATED: Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 10:51am

Study finds in utero surgeries for spina bifida preferable to operating after birth.


Doctors at Vanderbilt University started experimenting with correcting spina bifida on a fetus in the womb more than a decade ago.

The surgery gives doctors and their tiny patients a chance to meet before they are born.

Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the spine doesn't fully close around the spinal cord, leaving it exposed.

Surgery to repair the spine normally occurs shortly after birth, but a new, multi-hospital study looked at operating during the second trimester of pregnancy.

"The trial really showed clearly that when we compared the patients who had had surgery post-natally versus prenatally, on average, the kids that were repaired in utero had better outcomes," says pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Nalin Gupta.

Children operated on before birth were nearly a third less likely to need a shunt to remove fluid from the brain.

They were also more likely to walk unassisted.

Experts are quick to note this is not a cure, and there are significant risks.

Babies who underwent prenatal surgery were more likely to be born premature and have respiratory problems.

Despite these challenges, doctors are keeping a positive outlook.

"This has been a relatively neglected disease, people felt that there was nothing that could be done for these children," says Dr. Diana Farmer.

Now there's new hope shared by everyone involved.

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