Spina bifida surgery performed on two babies in the womb in UK first

General view of University College Hospital in London.

Story highlights

  • The surgery is associated with better outcomes than postnatal procedures to treat spina bifida
  • Until now, women had to travel to other countries for the procedure

(CNN)In a UK first, a team of international surgeons successfully operated on the abnormally developed spines of two unborn babies with spina bifida.

Until now, British mothers had to choose between traveling abroad to complete this surgery or waiting for their child to be born.
    The 30-strong team was completed with two surgeries this summer by researchers from University College London (UCL), clinicians from UCL Hospital, UCL and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and University Hospital Leuven in Belgium,
    Treatment for spina bifida -- a problem with the development of the spinal cord leaving a gap or a split in the spine -- before birth gives babies a better chance in life than surgery after birth, according to the team, as babies born with spina bifida are often incapable of walking and may need a series of other operations later in life such as shunt placement (surgery to drain fluid from the brain).
    Spina bifida can be caused by low intake of folic acid and certain medications taken by women during pregnancy, but genetics also plays a role. Six in every 10,000 UK births are affected by spina bifida.
    "In spina bifida, the spinal canal does not close completely in the womb, leaving the spinal cord exposed from an early stage in pregnancy. This results in changes to the brain, as well as severe permanent damages to the nerves on the lower half of the body," said lead neurosurgeon Dr. Dominic Thompson of GOSH.
    Closure of spina bifida while a baby is still in the womb "has been shown to improve short- and medium-term ourcomes," added lead fetal neurosurgeon Dr. Jan Deprest from UCLH. "While neither intervention is curative, in fetal surgery the defect is closed earlier, which prevents damage to the spinal cord in the last third of pregnancy."