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GOSH Children’s Charity helps fund the first UK surgery in the womb for baby with spina bifida

FUNDING from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) Children’s Charity has enabled a team from Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London Hospitals (UCLH) to carry out the first two surgeries in the womb for babies with spina bifida in the UK.  

GOSH, University College London and UCLH have been working for three years to bring this service to patients in the UK through the creation of a Centre for Prenatal Therapy, funded with the help of GOSH Charity. 

Spina bifida is caused when the spinal cord and surrounding vertebrae don’t form properly leaving the spinal cord exposed as the baby develops in the womb. Surgery after birth isn’t always effective, and children with the condition suffer from a range of disabilities including paralysis of the legs. The fetal surgery team repaired the holes in the babies’ spine in two 90-minute operations this summer. Both mums and babies are recovering well. 

Lead neurosurgeon at GOSH, Dominic Thompson
The lead neurosurgeon at GOSH, Dominic Thompson said:

“This ground-breaking surgery will improve the quality of life for children with spina bifida, and it wouldn’t have been possible without funding from GOSH Children’s Charity. The charity provided the opportunity for vital expertise and training.” 

Until now, mums could choose to have the fetal surgery abroad or have postnatal surgery after the baby is born, which is the current practice in the UK. However, thanks to funding from GOSH Children’s Charity, surgeons were able to travel to Belgium where Professor Jan Deprest has led the way in this specialist surgery, to learn the pioneering technique and bring it back to the UK.   

This specialist fetal surgery will give the baby a significantly better chance in life, as children with spina bifida are very often incapable of walking and may require a series of operations to drain fluid from the brain (shunt placement) later in life.  

Dominic Thompson explains: “In spina bifida, the spinal cord does not form properly and is exposed from an early stage in pregnancy. In addition to damaging the nerves to the legs, bladder and bowel, changes to the brain also occur such as ‘water on the brain’ – hydrocephalus. 

“Closure in the womb is an alternative to postnatal surgery and is now known to give better results for selected children with spina bifida. While neither intervention is fully curative, in fetal surgery the defect is closed earlier which reduces the damage to the spinal cord and brain during the last third of pregnancy.” 

Operating in the womb involves opening the uterus, exposing the spina bifida without delivering the baby, closing the defect and then repairing the uterus to leave the baby safely inside. 

Kiki Syrad, Director of Grants and Impact at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity said:

“For many children with complex and rare conditions, research is their only hope. Across the UK approximately 700 women a year will learn that their baby has a major form of spina bifida. The incredible surgery that neurosurgeon Dominic Thompson is now able to carry out will improve outcomes for these children.  

“It is only thanks to the generosity of our supporters that we can fund pioneering research into procedures like this, which will unlock the big breakthroughs of the future.” 

Fetal surgery for spina bifida explained