- Last Updated: March 8, 2018
Fetal Surgery is a term used to describe a wide array of procedures used in the treatment of birth defects while the fetus is still in the womb. Both open and minimally invasive surgical techniques have been used to correct various pathologies from cardiac abnormalities to limb defects. As with any surgical procedure, there are inherent risks, although in these cases, two patients (mother and fetus) are vulnerable instead of one. Most birth defects discovered during the pregnancy are amenable to treatment after birth, however, improved outcomes have been demonstrated for some defects corrected in utero. Therefore, the risk of fetal surgery to both the mother and fetus always has to be weighed against the potential benefit of the treatment to the fetus.
Congenital Heart defects (CHDs) are the most common type of birth defect. They affect almost 1% or about 40,000 births per year in the U.S. and are the leading cause of infant illness and death. Currently, there are about 2 million children and adults living with CHDs.
Minimally invasive fetal surgery has gained popularity in recent years due to advancements in surgical techniques and imaging. Treatments can be performed through tiny openings in the abdomen that limit the risk to the mother and reduce the chance of provoking pre-term labor. Common defects that can now be treated with minimally invasive surgery include:
- Twin-twin Transfusion syndrome (laser ablation of blood vessels)
- Fetal Bladder Obstructions
- Aortic or Pulmonary Valvuloplasty (opening of the aortic or pulmonary valves to allow blood to flow)
- Atrial Septostomy (opening the inter-atrial septum to allow blood flow between the right and left atrium)
- Spina Bifida
Focused Ultrasound Research
Focused Ultrasound is not currently an approved treatment for fetal birth defects but has been proposed as a potential non-invasive alternative to open surgery. Focused ultrasound has the ability to use acoustic energy to destroy target tissue through cavitation (histotripsy) or thermal ablation. This could help treat defects like Twin-twin transfusion syndrome (ablation of vessels), fetal bladder obstructions and a range of CHDs (atrial-septal defects, valvuloplasty, tetralogy of fallot).
Some preclinical feasibility studies have yielded promising results for procedures including cardiac valve ablation, vascular occlusion and fetal tissue ablation. However, for research to progress past the preclinical and anecdotal stages, more studies are needed to further explore safety and efficacy.
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