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Australian first in fetal surgery for spina bifida

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Fetus growing inside womb

Success Stories

In an Australian first a team of Brisbane surgeons in collaboration with a visiting team from Vanderbilt University Hospital in the United States, successfully performed in-utero spinal surgery on a fetus.

This ‘Australian first’ was performed in 2016 at the Mater hospital on a 24 week-old in-utero baby who had been diagnosed with spina bifida, and the team included BCNC’s Dr Martin Wood.

ABC News – Australia’s first in-utero surgery for spina bifida (2016)

Spinal Bifida is a debilitating condition where the lower part of a baby’s spine is open. It affects 1 in 2000 pregnancies, and each year approximately 150 babies are born with the condition in Australia. The impact for survivors of spina bifida is that it severely impacts their way of life due to major disabilities such as lower limb paralysis and incontinence.

Following the pioneering achievement of Vanderbilt University Hospital in prenatal surgery for spina bifida back in 1997, a seven-year trial in the United States (MOMS study) was conducted, and the findings concluded that there was significant life-style benefit to spina bifida suffers if treated prior to birth. 

Listen to Diana L. Farmer, MD discuss the importance of the MOMS Study (2012)

However, whilst, spina bifida is usually diagnosed through routine ultrasound and blood tests at around 18-20 weeks of pregnancy, up until 2016 it was previously untreatable within Australia until post-birth. 

Therefore, Australian parents of an unborn child who was suffering from spina bifida would often seek to either go overseas for utero-spinal surgery at significant cost, terminate the pregnancy or wait until birth for the surgery to be performed.

This Australian first in prenatal spina bifida surgery back in 2016 has now paved the way for parents to access early surgical treatment of spina bifida for their unborn child right here in Australia. 

As Dr Glen Gardener, Mater’s team lead said at the time “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.”

Additionally, Dr Martin Wood echoed similar sentiments “It should offer this child and other children a very real chance of having a better level of functioning that they would have had otherwise”.

ABC News 24 Breakfast: Australia’s first in-utero surgery for spina bifida, Dr Glenn Gardener (2016)

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