£10m awarded for foetal surgery research

2 June 2014

Surgeons will be able to use better tools, imaging techniques and therapies in future operations on unborn babies due to a £10 million award from the Wellcome Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop these technologies.

Ultrasound image of foetus

Pioneered in the 1980s, surgery on unborn babies has been shown to be effective to treat conditions arising before birth like spina bifida, where a lesion on the back leaves the spinal cord exposed in the womb, and twin-twin transfusion syndrome, where blood passes unequally between twins who share a placenta.

Now, research led by engineers at UCL and KU Leuven in Belgium will develop novel imaging techniques that can be used before and during surgery to visualise blood circulation, enabling surgeons to better plan and perform operations on unborn babies with severe birth defects.

The project has been funded by the Wellcome Trust and EPSRC under the 'Innovative Engineering for Health' initiative, which also involves paediatric surgeons and doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London Hospital NHS Trust.

In addition to working on surgical imaging techniques, the team will develop new instruments to improve the flexibility and precision of the surgeon, as well as adaptations to deliver stem cell therapies to the unborn baby in the womb. A training platform will also be developed that will enable surgeons to gain the necessary skills before operating on pregnant mothers.

Around one in a hundred babies are born with a severe birth defect, and collectively these are estimated to be responsible for over a third of all paediatric hospital admissions and up to a half of the total cost of paediatric hospital treatment.

Birth defects are usually detected prenatally by screening with ultrasound and some of these can benefit from surgical correction because therapy cannot wait until after birth. Performing surgery whilst the fetus is still in the womb improves survival chances and significantly reduces life-time disability.

Professor Sebastien Ourselin (UCL Centre for Medical Image Computing), who is leading the research said: "Operating on babies in the womb is not undertaken lightly and is reserved for just a handful of the most severe defects. Very few procedures can be done safely in the fetus using keyhole surgery, and more complex ones require opening the uterus, which puts both the mother and unborn baby at risk. Less than 1,000 procedures a year have been attempted at various specialised clinics around the world.

“Our aim is to combine less invasive surgical technologies with stem cell and gene therapies to treat a wide range of diseases in the womb, with considerably less risk to both mother and baby."

Our aim is to combine less invasive surgical technologies with stem cell and gene therapies to treat a wide range of diseases in the womb, with considerably less risk to both mother and baby.

Professor Sebastien Ourselin (UCL Centre for Medical Image Computing)

Dr Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Developing the tools surgeons need to improve foetal surgery will be transformative both in treating severe birth defects and in developing the next generation of surgical technology. Whilst it may be many years before the full potential of the research will be realised, the size and duration of the awards from the Trust and EPSRC are designed to enable our award holders to be bold in their approach.”

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC, said: "This research shows how engineering and scientific developments can save and improve lives. We are very proud to be working in partnership with the Wellcome Trust to support this research. Hopefully it will improve the survival chances of unborn children by making fetal surgery safer and treatment better focussed."

Mr Paolo de Coppi, consultant paediatric surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital, who is leading on GOSH’s involvement in the project, said: “As the safety of foetal surgery increases, it is possible that many of the operations that we currently perform on newborn babies at Great Ormond Street will become foetal procedures. That’s very good news for a child’s long term outlook, because the earlier we can correct a serious defect in a growing foetus, the better the outcome is likely to be for the child and their future development.”

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