Texas Children's Hospital's experimental surgery treats spina bifida

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Friday, January 29, 2016
Texas Children Hospital treats spina bifida
Texas Children's Hospital's innovative surgery treats spina bifida

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Children born with spina bifida usually face a multitude of challenges throughout their lives, with many of them having limited mobility. But a ground breaking experimental surgery is looking to change all that, by improving their quality of life. This fetoscopic procedure is only being performed right here in Houston at Texas Children's Hospital.

The past three weeks have been a whirlwind for Jolene and Nick Jensen.

"Went through a bunch of testing. Met all the doctors and they said OK, let's have the surgery in two days," Jolene told us.

The Jensen's unborn child had been diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect in which a baby's spinal cord fails to develop properly in-utero. After determining that Jolene was a candidate for fetoscopic surgery, they temporarily moved to Houston from Utah for the rest of her pregnancy, because it was pioneered and only performed at Texas Children's.

"The program is still an experimental program and I think that's very important for people to understand that this is experimental surgery," Doctor Michael Belfort said.

Doctor Belfort, Obstetrician and Gynecologist-in-Chief at the Texas Children's Pavilion for Women, says there are various forms of Spina Bifida. In the Jensen's case, the lower part of the spine has not closed, and it's actually open to the amniotic fluid. These are the spinal nerves that control the legs, along with bowl and bladder functions.

"When you have exposed spinal nerves and exposed spine to the amniotic fluid and the substances within the amniotic fluid, those nerves can be damaged," Dr. Belfort said.

With this experimental surgery, it could improve the effects of spina bifida, including lowering the need for a shunt for excess brain fluid and increased leg function.

"It would help him grow and have a better chance at leading a more normal life," Jolene said.

"The standard approach is to do an open repair where the mother's uterus is opened through usually through a 7- to 10-centimeter incision" according to Dr. Belfort.

However, an incision that size could put the mother's uterus at risk for rupture to the current or future pregnancies. But with this new fetoscopic procedure, they're lowering the maternal risks.

"We put two tiny little ports into the uterus," Dr. Belfort said. "And then put scope and instruments through those ports and operate telescopic or keyhole surgery, this is a methodology of doing surgery minimally invasively."

In fetoscopic surgery, they're able to cover the lower spine with a membrane to protect it from further exposure to amniotic fluid. Jolene was only the 17th mother to have this procedure, and doctors have been optimistic with the results so far.

Nick said, "Looking through ultrasounds, they've noticed full function in his ankles, knees and his so we're hoping that's going to be preserved and he won't have any more problems."

Doctors have already seen success with this. The first baby to have the procedure just turned one, and already has the use of his legs.