In an Australian first, surgeons have successfully operated on the spine of an unborn baby diagnosed with spina bifida.
It was during an ultrasound the 24-week-old fetus was diagnosed with the serious birth defect, which prevents the spine and spinal cord from developing normally.
The condition affects one in 2000 pregnancies in Australia and is usually treated with spinal surgery after birth.
But a team of surgeons from Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, working with a visiting team from Vanderbilt University Hospital in the US, carried out the in-utero operation in Brisbane over the weekend, using a scalpel smaller than a pin.
Director of Mater’s maternal fetal medicine, Dr Glenn Gardener, says the surgery went as well as surgeons expected.
“The surgery went as well as we could have hoped and both mother and baby are doing well. My sincere thanks go to the Vanderbilt team who have supported and assisted us to complete this surgery in Australia,” Dr Gardener says.
“While this surgery isn’t a cure for spina bifida it does significantly improve the outcomes for babies with spina bifida and I’m delighted we have been able to perform this surgery, saving them the added stress of travelling overseas to access this treatment.”
Mater Hospital Neurosurgeon Dr Martin Wood says there was very little margin for error during the surgery.
“The stakes are high when you’re talking about a 750g fetus. It’s got 60mls of blood in its whole body, so one tenth of a bottle of water, and you could spill that in a heartbeat.”
He tells the ABC the surgery should give the baby an improved chance at life.
“It should offer this child and other children a very real chance of having a better level of functioning than they would have had otherwise,” Dr Wood says.
Babies can seem to be such fragile beings, but they’re really just tiny little warriors fighting to survive, even when the odds are stacked against them.