Nov 11, 2015 | By Kira

Out of every 100 newborn babies, five will be born with spina bifida, an unsettlingly common birth defect in which there is incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord. Children born with spina bifida can suffer from deformed feet, seizures, or even lifelong paralysis of the legs. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands and Erasmus medical centres are developing a novel, minimally invasive surgery technique that uses 3D printing in utero to correct gaps in the backs of fetuses, treating spina bifida before the child is even born. The researchers believe that the treatment could be available within just a few years, and have received an Open Mind grant of €50,000 from technology foundation STW to further develop this groundbreaking technique.

Through ultrasounds, spina bifida can generally be detected during the early stages of pregnancy, leaving expecting parents with few difficult options: to abort the pregnancy, where the procedure is legal, or to undergo a painful and risky surgery, wherein the mother’s abdomen is opened so that the doctor can operate on the fetus before putting it back in the womb and sewing the mother back up. It is an extremely intense operation, stressful for both the fetus and mother. Moreover, it is a mere treatment—not a cure. “Toxic substances in the amniotic fluid have already damaged the nerves,” explain Professor Dick Oepkes of the LUMC and the Netherlands’ first professor of fetal therapy. “After birth the surgeon closes the defect on the back to cover the nerves. However, this is not a cure. The nerves are already damaged before birth; these children are wheelchair-bound for the rest of their life.”

As an alternative and dramatically less-invasive treatment, Oepkes and Alex Eggink of Eramus developed an “out-of-the-box solution” for simple, safe and early treatment. Combining minimally invasive surgery with 3D printing technology, they applying a watertight seal, 3D printed through an extremely thin needle, directly onto the fetus, effectively closing off the spinal opening. According to the researchers, the seal is flexible and grows with the child as it develops in the womb. Though still not a complete cure for Spina Bifida, the solution limits nerve damage in the babies. “This creative improvement in surgery will have a major impact on the quality of life of many children,” said Oepkes.

The Open Mind grant of €50,000 was awarded to the project by STW, a technology foundation whose €101 million euro annual budget comes from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NOW), the Ministry of Education , Culture and Science, the Ministry for Economic Affairs (EZ), and private donor and business financing partners.

If the project continues on schedule, the treatment could be available to pregnant women and their affected children within the next few years. It is the first known spina bifida therapy to use 3D printing technology as a treatment technique.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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