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UK News Desk

‘Miracle worker’ doctor performs ground-breaking operation on an unborn baby with spina bifida

‘Miracle worker’ doctor performs ground-breaking operation on an unborn baby with spina bifida – three decades after he saved the girl’s mother with pioneering surgery when she was still in the womb too

  • Professor Kypros Nicolaides offered Sherrie Sharpe groundbreaking surgery 
  • While a baby in her mothers womb Professor Nicolaides saved her life
  • When she was pregnant with her own child she asked him to help her again 
  • The 29-year-old’s unborn baby was operated on at six months of pregnancy

When Sherrie Sharp was still in her mother’s womb, a young surgeon saved her life with a pioneering blood transfusion.

Three decades later, they crossed paths again when the same specialist helped save Sherrie’s son – in her womb – in an operation that has only just started being done in the UK.

Professor Kypros Nicolaides, the world’s leading expert in foetal medicine, offered Miss Sharp, 29, the ground-breaking procedure after pregnancy scans revealed her baby had life-threatening spina bifida.

Professor Kypros Nicolaides, the world¿s leading expert in foetal medicine, offered Sherrie Sharp, 29, the ground-breaking procedure after pregnancy scans revealed her baby had life-threatening spina bifida

Professor Kypros Nicolaides, the world’s leading expert in foetal medicine, offered Sherrie Sharp, 29, the ground-breaking procedure after pregnancy scans revealed her baby had life-threatening spina bifida

She was 23 weeks pregnant when she was told her baby had spina bifida, which results in the spine failing to form properly. It leads to nerve damage that can cause paralysis and brain damage

She was 23 weeks pregnant when she was told her baby had spina bifida, which results in the spine failing to form properly. It leads to nerve damage that can cause paralysis and brain damage

Six weeks after the operation, baby Jaxson was born. He is now four weeks old and can kick his legs and wriggle around ¿ movement made possible by the operation. Miss Sharp, from Horsham, West Sussex, said: ¿He¿s amazed us all ¿ he¿s a miracle¿

Six weeks after the operation, baby Jaxson was born. He is now four weeks old and can kick his legs and wriggle around – movement made possible by the operation. Miss Sharp, from Horsham, West Sussex, said: ‘He’s amazed us all – he’s a miracle’

Sherrie Sharp (pictured with her newborn last month) underwent keyhole surgery to repair her son Jaxson's spina bifida while he was still in the womb in the first operation of its kind in the UK

Jaxson (pictured) is 'doing well' and wriggling his legs. Without surgery he could have been immobile

Sherrie Sharp (pictured left with her newborn last month) underwent keyhole surgery to repair her son Jaxson’s spina bifida while he was still in the womb in the first operation of its kind in the UK. Jaxson (right) is wriggling his legs. Without surgery he could have been immobile

Ms Sharp (pictured with Jaxson) refused to have an abortion when a 20-week scan revealed his spinal cord was bulging out of his back. She opted to have the surgery at 27 weeks

Ms Sharp (pictured with Jaxson) refused to have an abortion when a 20-week scan revealed his spinal cord was bulging out of his back. She opted to have the surgery at 27 weeks

Hero they call the miracle worker 

When parents first meet Professor Kypros Nicolaides, it tends to be on one of the worst days of their lives.

They have often just been told their unborn child is likely to die and their only hope rests in the hands of the surgeon known as a ‘miracle worker’.

Professor Nicolaides has spent 40 years caring for the tiniest and most vulnerable of NHS patients. He leads the world-renowned Foetal Medicine Department at King’s College Hospital in London, where his office is adorned with pictures of hundreds of babies whose lives he has saved.

His work has revolutionised foetal medicine. The first doctor to perform laser surgery in the womb, he specialises in pioneering techniques that allow him to diagnose, treat or even prevent certain conditions before a baby is born.

Professor Nicolaides was born in Cyprus in 1953 and trained at King’s College Medical School. He has held the position of Professor of Foetal Medicine since 1991. 

He led a team of doctors who operated on her using keyhole surgery when she was six months pregnant.

Three small incisions were made in Miss Sharp’s abdomen, and a thin camera and surgical tools were inserted into her uterus. Doctors then repaired the baby’s spinal cord during a three-hour operation at King’s College Hospital in London.

Six weeks later, baby Jaxson was born. He is now four weeks old and can kick his legs and wriggle around – movement made possible by the operation. Miss Sharp, from Horsham, West Sussex, said: ‘He’s amazed us all – he’s a miracle.’

She was 23 weeks pregnant when she was told her baby had spina bifida, which results in the spine failing to form properly. It leads to nerve damage that can cause paralysis and brain damage.

Miss Sharp was offered a number of options, including abortion, before her mother Jacqueline, 56, suggested she approach Professor Nicolaides. The surgeon had saved Miss Sharp’s life in 1990 by giving her blood through her mother’s umbilical cord when she developed severe anaemia inside the womb.

Professor Nicolaides, 66, said: ‘When Sherrie came to see me, she asked if I remembered her. Of course I did! I remember everything about operating on her mother, even if it was 30 years ago.

The procedure is not a cure but will reduce Jaxson's (pictured) risk of complications

The procedure is not a cure but will reduce Jaxson’s (pictured) risk of complications

Jaxson (pictured) was born at 33 weeks last month, with his back 'healing nicely'

 Jaxson (pictured) was born at 33 weeks last month, with his back ‘healing nicely’

Doctors have repaired spina bifida via keyhole surgery in the mother's womb in a UK first

Doctors have repaired spina bifida via keyhole surgery in the mother’s womb in a UK first

HOW CAN KEYHOLE SURGERY IN THE WOMB REPAIR SPINA BIFIDA?

Spinia bifida is a birth defect that causes a baby’s spinal cord to not develop properly.

Left untreated, this can cause nerve damage that leads to leg paralysis, incontinence and a build-up of fluid in the brain.

The keyhole surgery involves doctors making a few small incisions across a mother’s abdomen.

They then insert a camera and surgical tools into the womb, before pushing the baby’s spinal cord into place.

The baby’s muscles and skin have to be closed to prevent its spinal-cord fluid leaking.

And a ‘patch’ is used to cover its vertebrae.

This is preferable to corrective surgery after the baby is born, with complications becoming more severe the longer the spinal cord is exposed to amniotic fluid.

It is also better to make a few small incisions rather than one large one due to the risk the uterus may rupture during a woman’s subsequent pregnancies. 

‘It was a pioneering operation and her mother was one of the first I operated on.’

He added: ‘I immediately felt a very close bond with Sherrie. It was a very nice feeling to see someone I had treated as a foetus coming back to me 30 years later, although it made me feel very old.

‘Sherrie said she needed to pay me back for saving her life by letting me test this new technique. I have saved two generations of the family – I don’t think I will be around for the third! I was so happy when I met Jaxson. I felt like it was my child.’

Miss Sharp, a pharmacy worker, was the second woman to undergo the keyhole spina bifida surgery in the UK. She said: ‘I’m only here today thanks to the specialists at King’s, so I wanted my baby to have the same chance.

‘He’s got a lot of movements in his legs. We were told he’d have minimal movements if we didn’t have the surgery or he wouldn’t be able to move them at all.

‘It’s not a complete cure but it means Jaxson will be able to do things he otherwise wouldn’t have done.’

Her mother said: ‘When I met Kypros while pregnant in 1990, Sherrie was severely anaemic and in a critical condition. He had to take my blood, freeze it, clean it and put it back into my umbilical cord. Without him, Sherrie had no chance of surviving.

‘He helped me through the rest of my pregnancies. Now I have five children and seven grandchildren, all thanks to him – he is part of the family.’

King’s College Hospital is the first centre in the UK to carry out keyhole surgery on babies with spina bifida while still in the womb. 

WHAT IS SPINAL BIFIDA? 

Spina bifida is a fault in the development of the spine and spinal cord that leaves a gap in the spine.

About 1,500 babies are born with spina bifida each year in the US, according to the CDC. In the UK, approximately one in 1,000 babies are born with the condition.

Most cases are detected before birth, at the 20-week scan.

The most serious form of the disease is called myelomeningocele. In myelomeningocele, the spinal column remains open along the bones making up the spine.

The membranes and spinal cord push out to create a sac in the baby’s back.

This sometimes leaves the nervous system vulnerable to infections that may be fatal.

In most cases surgery is carried out to close the gap in the spine after birth.

But damage to the nervous system will usually already have taken place, resulting in:

Most babies with myelomeningocele will also develop hydrocephalus, with excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pooling inside the brain.

This is caused by a malformation at the base of the skull in which the lower parts of the brain are pushed down towards the spinal cord.

Babies with hydrocephalus are fitted with a shunt after birth to divert the fluid from the brain, so reducing the risk of increasing cranial pressure, into the abdominal cavity. 

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