Ed. note: This is an update of a post that originally appeared in 2014.
The neural tube is supposed to close during the first month of prenatal development, forming the spinal cord and the brain. In children with spina bifida, it doesn’t close completely, leaving the nerves of the spinal cord exposed and subject to damage. The most common and serious form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele, sets a child up for lifelong disability, causing complications such as hydrocephalus, leg paralysis, and loss of bladder and bowel control.
A growing body of research from Boston Children’s Hospital, though still in animal models, suggests that spina bifida could be repaired at least partially early in pregnancy, through intrauterine injections of a baby’s own cells. …
The amniotic fluid surrounding babies in the womb contains fetal mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that can differentiate into many cell types and tissues. More than a decade ago, Dario Fauza, MD, PhD, a surgeon and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, proposed using these cells therapeutically. His lab has been exploring these cells’ healing properties ever since.
Replicated in great quantity in the lab and then reinfused into the amniotic fluid in animal models — a reverse amniocentesis if you will — MSCs derived from amniotic fluid have been shown to repair or mitigate congenital defects before birth. In spina bifida, they have induced skin to grow over the exposed spinal cord; in gastroschisis, they have reduced damage to the exposed bowel. Fauza calls this approach Trans-Amniotic Stem Cell Therapy, or TRASCET.
Except when spreading awareness about her condition, 6-year-old Gianna DeCarlo prefers not to wear two-piece bathing suits because of the long vertical scar on her stomach. “Even though nobody’s said anything, she feels like she’ll be made fun of,” says her mother, Danielle. “I do what I can to make her love her body.”
Gianna doesn’t remember her three surgeries or the nasogastric tube she needed as an infant, before she was able to eat normally. She was born with gastroschisis, a striking birth defect in which the abdominal wall doesn’t seal fully during fetal development. As a result, her intestines developed outside her body. She was fed through an IV for several weeks, and was finally stitched fully shut at age 2. …