Doctors: Worm glue may be key to successful fetal surgeries

April 25, 2013 4:58:05 PM PDT
When a pregnant woman learns her unborn baby has a birth defect, there isn't much doctors can do. Sometimes they can try to correct it with fetal surgery, but it's risky.

Now Houston doctors are testing something new that could make surgeries on babies in the womb safer.

It's worm glue. Yes, a glue made out of the sandcastle worm and it's might eventually help save the lives of Houston babies.

How do you help a baby with a birth defect? In some cases, with surgery before the baby is born.

At Houston's Texas Fetal Center, they're doing life-saving fetal surgeries to save twins and to reduce disabilities in babies with spina bifida. But fetal surgery is high risk, and the tiny incision can't be stitched or patched.

"The hole can, in about a third of cases, begin to leak later, causing the baby to deliver prematurely," said Dr. Ken Moise Jr., a UTHealth fetal surgeon.

Enter the sandcastle worm.

"It's gluing a grain of sand to the end of the tube," Bioengineer Russell Stewart said.

Stewart developed a glue based on the sandcastle worm's glue and was testing it in broken bones when fetal surgeon Dr. Ramesha Papanna thought this worm glue could save babies.

"The chance of treating many more diseases is tremendous," Dr. Papanna said.

"I thought that would be a perfect application for this adhesive," Stewart said.

Stewart was able to reproduce the formula so it's no longer made from worms.

The sandcastle worm taught them how to make the glue stick under water. But then they added something that made it light sensitive so they can use it and seal it in the darkness of the womb.

In a test, Dr. Papanna put a drop of the worm glue on a patch, glued the patch to a piece of chicken, and sealed it with a green light. It could provide a way to do heart surgery, reverse birth defects, and potentially other life-saving surgeries in the womb.

"I think the sky's the limit once we figure out how to use this," Dr. Moise said.

It's all to give babies a better life after birth.

"And giving these moms hope that in the past we could just give them bad news, that their baby had a birth defect. But now we can do something about it," Dr. Moise said.

They hope to use the worm glue in fetal surgery in the next three to five years.

When the synthetic version of the sandcastle worm glue is approved by the FSA, doctors plan to use it first in Houston, to develop more life saving, and life-improving surgeries on babies in the womb.

Find Christi on Facebook at ABC13-Christi Myers or on Twitter at @ChristiMyers13


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