Can 3D Printing Help Correct Spina Bifida In Utero?

Spina bifida is a serious birth defect that can have a lifetime impact on a child. But science and technology are providing a way to fix this problem. A modern innovation, 3D printing, has been adapted to provide a 3D model of the fetus in the womb to help surgeons successfully correct the defect before the child is born.

What Is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida is a disorder affecting the prenatal developing spine. It can occur anywhere along the spine when the spinal cord does not close properly. This happens within the first few weeks of pregnancy, and it can cause mild to severe physical and intellectual disabilities, depending on the location and size of the defect and how the spine and nerves are impacted.

There are three types of spina bifida:

  • Myelomeningocele, in which a fluid sac, containing the damaged spinal cord and nerves, comes through an opening in the baby’s back. This can cause moderate to severe disabilities.
  • Meningocele, in which a fluid sac, with no spinal cord in it, comes through an opening in the baby’s back, with little or no nerve damage. This can cause minor disabilities.
  • Spina bifida occulta, in which the small gap in the spine is barely noticeable. This is the mildest form and rarely causes disabilities.

Spina bifida can be diagnosed during pregnancy or after birth. When it is diagnosed after birth, this might be because the mother did not have prenatal care or the affected spine did not show up on an ultrasound.

What Causes Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida can be caused by a combination of genetic, nutritional, and environmental risk factors, and often occurs within the first few weeks of pregnancy. This birth defect can also be attributed to a parent’s exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment or workplace, either before or during pregnancy. Multiple studies have even linked spina bifida to exposure to certain herbicides, too.

According to the CDC, although not all the causes are known, there are ways to lessen the risk, including taking 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy. The CDC also recommends regular prenatal checkups with your doctor to discuss medications and supplements you are taking, avoiding overheating your body such as in hot tubs or saunas, and treating fever quickly.

What Is 3D Printing, and How Is It Used to Correct the Birth Defect?

Because spina bifida can be diagnosed during pregnancy, prenatal surgery is a viable option to correct the defect. But operating on a fetus in the mother’s womb is a challenging task. To help surgeons plan a safe and efficient surgery, 3D printing offers a way to lessen the uncertainty. 3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object from a digital file. For in-utero surgery, MRI and ultrasound images of the fetus are used to create a high-resolution, life-size, 3D model of the fetus. Surgeons are then able to see important details like the structure of the fetal skeleton, fluid sacs caused by spina bifida, and even where the nerves run so the surgeon can avoid them when making an incision.

The website Tectales reported that another advantage of this 3D model is helping the mother and father clearly see what the surgery will accomplish.

“At first, we just thought it was a model showing the same kind of condition that our baby was diagnosed with, but then [the doctor] told us that it was made using the 20-week MRI of our daughter,” one expectant father, Jared Rodriguez, said. “We could see the brain and the spine and I looked down at it and thought, ‘I’m holding my daughter right now? That’s pretty awesome.’”

Tectales also reported that, so far, in-utero surgery is helping babies gain more functionality and provides better results than waiting until after birth to perform surgery.

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