Spina Bifida Claimed My Son's Mobility. Incredible Breakthroughs May Let Future Kids Run Free.

Sarah Watts's son Henry was born with spina bifida and can't stand or walk without assistance.

(Courtesy of Watts)


When our son Henry, now six, was diagnosed with spina bifida at his 20-week ultrasound, my husband and I were in shock. It took us more than a few minutes to understand what the doctor was telling us.

When Henry was diagnosed in 2012, postnatal surgery was still the standard of care – but that was about to change.

Neither of us had any family history of birth defects. Our fifteen-month-old daughter, June, was in perfect health.

But more than that, spina bifida – a malformation of the neural tube that eventually becomes the baby's spine – is woefully complex. The defect, the doctor explained, was essentially a hole in Henry's lower spine from which his spinal nerves were protruding – and because they were exposed to my amniotic fluid, those nerves were already permanently damaged. After birth, doctors could push the nerves back into his body and sew up the hole, but he would likely experience some level of paralysis, bladder and bowel dysfunction, and a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid that would require a surgical implant called a shunt to correct. The damage was devastating – and irreversible.

We returned home with June and spent the next few days cycling between disbelief and total despair. But within a week, the maternal-fetal medicine specialist who diagnosed Henry called us up and gave us the first real optimism we had felt in days: There was a new, experimental surgery for spina bifida that was available in just a handful of hospitals around the country. Rather than waiting until birth to repair the baby's defect, some doctors were now trying out a prenatal repair, operating on the baby via c-section, closing the defect, and then keeping the mother on strict bedrest until it was time for the baby to be delivered, just before term.

This new surgery carried risks, he told us – but if it went well, there was a chance Henry wouldn't need a shunt. And because repairing the defect during my pregnancy meant the spinal nerves were exposed for a shorter amount of time, that meant we'd be preventing nerve damage – and less nerve damage meant that there was a chance he'd be able to walk.

Did we want in? the doctor asked.

Had I known more about spina bifida and the history of its treatment, this surgery would have seemed even more miraculous. Not too long ago, the standard of care for babies born with spina bifida was to simply let them die without medical treatment. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1950s that doctors even attempted to surgically repair the baby's defect at all, instead of opting to let the more severe cases die of meningitis from their open wound. (Babies who had closed spina bifida – a spinal defect covered by skin – sometimes survived past infancy, but rarely into adulthood).

But in the 1960s and 1970s, as more doctors started repairing defects and the shunting technology improved, patients with spina bifida began to survive past infancy. When catheterization was introduced, spina bifida patients who had urinary dysfunction, as is common, were able to preserve their renal function into adulthood, and they began living even longer. Within a few decades, spina bifida was no longer considered a death sentence; people were living fuller, happier lives.

When Henry was diagnosed in 2012, postnatal surgery was still the standard of care – but that was about to change. The first major clinical trial for prenatal surgery and spina bifida, called Management of Myelomeningocele (MOMS) had just concluded, and its objective was to see whether repairing the baby's defect in utero would be beneficial. In the trial, doctors assigned eligible women to undergo prenatal surgery in the second trimester of their pregnancies and then followed up with their children throughout the first 30 months of the child's life.

The results were groundbreaking: Not only did the children in the surgery group perform better on motor skills and cognitive tests than did patients in the control group, only 40 percent of patients ended up needing shunts compared to 80 percent of patients who had postnatal surgery. The results were so overwhelmingly positive that the trial was discontinued early (and is now, happily, the medical standard of care). Our doctor relayed this information to us over the phone, breathless, and left my husband and me to make our decision.

After a few days of consideration, and despite the benefits, my husband and I actually ended up opting for the postnatal surgery instead. Prenatal surgery, although miraculous, would have required extensive travel for us, as well as giving birth in a city thousands of miles from home with no one to watch our toddler while my husband worked and I recovered. But other parents I met online throughout our pregnancy did end up choosing prenatal surgery for their children – and the majority of them now walk with little assistance and only a few require shunting.

Sarah Watts with her husband, daughter June, and son Henry, at a recent family wedding.

(Courtesy)

Even more amazing to me is that now – seven years after Henry's diagnosis, and not quite a decade since the landmark MOMS trial – the standard of care could be about to change yet again.

Regardless of whether they have postnatal or prenatal surgery, most kids with spina bifida still experience some level of paralysis and rely on wheelchairs and walkers to move around. Now, researchers at UC Davis want to augment the fetal surgery with a stem cell treatment, using human placenta-derived mesenchymal stromal cells (PMSCs) and affixing them to a cellular scaffold on the baby's defect, which not only protects the spinal cord from further damage but actually encourages cellular regeneration as well.

The hope is that this treatment will restore gross motor function after the baby is born – and so far, in animal trials, that's exactly what's happening. Fetal sheep, who were induced with spinal cord injuries in utero, were born with complete motor function after receiving prenatal surgery and PMSCs. In 2017, a pair of bulldogs born with spina bifida received the stem cell treatment a few weeks after birth – and two months after surgery, both dogs could run and play freely, whereas before they had dragged their hind legs on the ground behind them. UC Davis researchers hope to bring this treatment into human clinical trials within the next year.

A century ago, a diagnosis of spina bifida meant almost certain death. Today, most children with spina bifida live into adulthood, albeit with significant disabilities. But thanks to research and innovation, it's entirely possible that within my lifetime – and certainly within Henry's – for the first time in human history, the disabilities associated with spina bifida could be a thing of the past.

Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.