Baby treated from inside womb for pioneering surgery to repair spinal cord

Henry Bodkin
Scans indicated spina bifida at 20 weeks - Telegraph

An unborn baby successfully underwent spinal cord surgery from inside the mother’s womb in a groundbreaking operation, it was revealed.

Surgeons performed the pioneering procedure at 24 weeks’ gestation after scans revealed the feotus had spina bifida.

The condition can leave sufferers with walking difficulties and even paralysis because the spinal cord does not fully develop during pregnancy.

Surgeons from University College London and Great Ormond Street Hospital, along with Belgian colleagues, managed to repair the spinal cord and it is now hoped the baby will be born healthily in April.

It is believed to be only the fourth time the operation has been attempted in the UK.

Initially the parents, Bethan Simpson and her husband Kieron, were told they could terminate the pregnancy or continue without any intervention.

But at a subsequent appointment they were offered feotal surgery.

“We agreed to do it,” said the 26-year-old.

“Baby and I went through amniotic fluid tests, MRIs and relentless scans. We got approved and we planned for surgery. Our lives were such a rollercoaster for the next few weeks."

Bethan Simpson

The neural tube, which eventually develops into a baby’s brain and spinal cord, starts to form early in pregnancy and should close at about four weeks after conceptions.

However, in babies with spina bifida the neural tube does not close properly.

Babies with the most severe form of the condition have a spinal canal that remains open, allowing the spinal cord to poke out and form a sac on the back.

Surgeons can usually operate to close the spine, but in most cases the nervous system will have been damaged by that time.

This can lead to weakness or total paralysis of the legs, as well as bowel or urinary incontinence and loss of sensation.

Ms Simpson, a nurse, said: "Sadly 80 per cent of babies in England are terminated when their parents get told their baby has this condition.

"It's not a death sentence. She has the same potential as every one of us.

"Yes, there are risks of things going wrong but please think more about spina bifida, it's not what it used to be.”

Last October the Government indicated they would introduce the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in a bid to reduce cases of spina bifida, which affect between 700 and 900 pregnancies each year and can result from deficiency in pregnant women.

Sign up for your essential, twice-daily briefing from The Telegraph with our free Front Page newsletter.