10 October 2022

The first swallows

In the USA, the world's first operations for the treatment of fetal spinal defects in the womb were carried out

Svetlana Maslova, Hi-tech+

The treatment consists in intrauterine injection of stem cells into the spinal cord area to correct a congenital defect — spina bifida — and prevent limb paralysis. Three children have already been born healthy after performing this unique operation, which marks a huge breakthrough in regenerative medicine.

Scientists from the University of California at Davis presented the interim results of the world's first clinical studies on the treatment of spina bifida during pregnancy. A year has already passed since the first operation, a total of 35 such operations are planned to be performed at this stage of research.

Spina bifida occurs in the earliest stages of pregnancy. This birth defect can lead to limb paralysis, impaired cognitive function and many other serious complications. The condition can be diagnosed by ultrasound and usually parents are asked to perform the operation after the birth of the child in order to slightly correct the condition.

On the contrary, operations before birth, in a developing organism, are able to prevent or significantly reduce the severity of damage, so scientists have been developing strategies for the treatment of such patients for many years. Previously conducted preclinical studies on animal models showed outstanding results — the animals fully recovered and were able to run independently. Now the team has presented the first intermediate results of the use of such treatment in humans.

The first patient was a woman named Emily, who underwent surgery at 25 weeks of pregnancy.


Emily and Robbie. Photo by UC Davis Health – VM.

The operation is performed under general anesthesia: a small hole is made in the uterus, through which a "patch" of mesenchymal stem cells is inserted into the area of the spinal cord of the fetus. The operation requires incredible precision and the experience of doctors — more than 40 specialists took part in it.

The baby was born on time by Caesarean section. Doctors immediately noted that he could move his fingers and toes. At the moment, a year has passed since the treatment and the baby's condition is encouraging. Without treatment, the child should have been born with leg paralysis. Meanwhile, doctors are very careful to make any statements. "It is necessary to pass the stage of 30 months," they explain. The observations will continue for six years.

At the moment, three successful operations have already been carried out. Soon, more than 30 pregnant women will undergo similar treatment.

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