healthHealth and Medicine

Two Unborn Babies Had Their Spines Repaired While Still In The Womb


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist


The operation was pioneered in the US but has since been carried out in Belgium and Switzerland, and now the UK. Syda Productions/Shutterstock

If you need more proof that we’re living in the future, look no further than this incredible biomedical breakthrough.

For the first time in the UK, two unborn babies with spina bifida have had their spines delicately repaired by surgery while still in their mothers' wombs. The feat was carried out by a 30-strong team in separate 90-minute operations over the past summer. The scientists and surgeons who collaborated on the project are now happy to announce the mothers and babies are recovering well.


Spina bifida is a condition where the bones of the spine do not form properly during pregnancy, leaving the nervous system exposed during the early months of gestation. Some people may have little to no disability, but it can result in long-term health complications, such as severe damage to nerves in the lower body and problems with brain development.

“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,” lead fetal surgeon Jan Deprest of University College London Hospital (UCLH) and University Hospitals Leuven in Belgium explained in a statement.

“Closure of spina bifida in the womb using this method is an alternative to postnatal surgery, and has been shown to improve short and medium-term outcomes,” added Deprest.

“While neither intervention is fully curative, in fetal surgery, the defect is closed earlier, which prevents damage to the spinal cord in the last third of pregnancy."


The operation was pioneered in the US but has since been carried out in Belgium and Switzerland. Surgeons from Belgium and the US have spent the past three years collaborating with doctors in the UK. By bringing the skills and know-how to more parts of the world, the hope is to make the operation cheaper and more accessible.

People with spina bifida often require a series of operations to drain fluid from the brain, known as shunt placement, later in life. The US trial of the surgery found that the operation reduced the need for shunt placement by up to 50 percent. Furthermore, babies who received the operation showed a significant improvement in motor function at 30 months of age.

The operation was made possible thanks to the charitable funding of £450,000 ($581,000) from Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and UCLH Charity. Professor Donald Peebles, UCLH clinical director for Women's Health, noted: “These vital funds have provided training for the surgical team and will fund surgery for the first 10 patients.”


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