Doctors Cut Into Mom's Womb to Repair Baby's Spinal Cord Defect

spina bifida surgery
Father Romeo Crisostomo and mother Romeila Son sit with their healthy daughter, Eiko, who had surgery as a fetus to correct a spinal defect. (Image credit: The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids))

Doctors in Canada performed a life-altering surgery on a fetus still developing inside its mother's womb to correct a spinal defect that would have led to spina bifida, according to news reports.

Spina bifida is a type of birth defect that occurs when the spinal column, or spine, which surrounds the spinal cord, doesn't fully close around the cord during the first month of pregnancy, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). This can lead to serious problems, including lower-limb paralysis or an early death.

On June 4, a team of surgeons at Mount Sinai Hospital and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), both in Toronto, began the two-and-a-half-hour procedure on a woman named Romeila Son, whose fetus was 25-weeks pregnant old at the time, according to a Nov. 14 statement from the hospitals. [7 Ways Pregnant Women Affect Babies]

During the operation, doctors cut through the mother's abdomen and uterus to reveal the fetus, according to the statement. Then, the fetus was carefully maneuvered so that her back was facing the surgeons, which allowed them to begin the delicate procedure to enclose the spinal cord in the spine.

This graphic shows the spinal cord defect in the fetus. The third panel illustrates the "myelomeningocele," the defect that forms when the spinal column doesn't properly close around the spinal cord. (Image credit: The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids))

Son later gave birth to a healthy girl, Eiko, via cesarian section on Aug.19.

"Although fetal surgery will not be appropriate for all fetuses with spina bifida, it is extremely encouraging that, for some, it may preserve" a child's ability to move his or her muscles and prevent brain problems, Dr. Greg Ryan, a surgeon involved with the operation and the head of the fetal medicine program at Mount Sinai Hospital, said in the statement.

The prenatal surgical procedure has been around for several years, and has been documented in clinical trials dating back to 2003, according to the NLM. But this marks the first time that the procedure has been performed in Canada — in the past, pregnant women in Canada have had to travel to the U.S. and find a doctor there who could perform the operation.

People born with spina bifida could be paralyzed for their entire lives, and most require permanent, invasive treatments such as shunts that are inserted into the brain to drain excess fluid, according to the statement.

But those who receive prenatal surgery are less likely to require shunts, walking aids or wheelchairs, and their brains tend to stay healthier, according to a 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Originally published on Live Science.

Dan Robitzski
Staff Writer
Dan Robitzski is a staff writer for Live Science and also finishing up his master's degree at NYU's Science, Healthy & Environmental Reporting Program. Formerly a neuroscientist, Dan decided to switch to journalism and writing so that he could talk about transparency and accessibility issues within science. When he's not writing, he's either getting beaten up at fencing practice or enduring the dog breath of his tiny, affectionate Chihuahua. He also spends too much time on Twitter at @danrobitzski.