A landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that the benefits of fetal surgery on children with spina bifida greatly outweigh the risks.
Spina bifida - which means split spine - happens when the spine doesn't develop properly. In the most severe cases, the spinal cord sticks out through an opening in the spine. Children often are paralyzed or have weakness below the waist, and many need crutches or a wheelchair. They also suffer from incontinence and fluid buildup in the brain.
Researchers reported that babies who undergo surgery in the womb are less likely to suffer those major complications.
"This is a big break. For the first time we can show a clear cut benefit, treating a non-life treating malformation by repairing it before birth," said Dr. Scott Adzick of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, one of three places that participated in the study.
The study found that 42 percent of children who have the fetal surgery are able to walk by the time they are toddlers versus the 21 percent of those who had surgery after they're born.
"Not all the patients were helped here, and there are significant risks," pediatric surgeon Dr. Diana Farmer of UC San Francisco noted. "So this procedure is not for everyone."