At five months’ gestation, Bentley Yoder was given little chance to live. A routine 20-week “gender reveal” ultrasound showed that a large portion of his brain was growing outside of his skull, a malformation known as an encephalocele. But he was moving and kicking and had a strong heartbeat, so his parents, Sierra and Dustin, carried on with the pregnancy.
Born through a normal vaginal delivery (the doctors felt that a C-section would interfere with Sierra’s grieving process), Bentley surprised everyone by thriving and meeting most of his baby milestones.
But the large protuberance on his head was holding him back. It steadily got larger, filling with cerebrospinal fluid. Bentley couldn’t hold his head up for more than a few seconds. …
Nearly 100 years ago, William Ladd, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, helped establish pediatric surgery as a medical subspecialty. The recognition that children require unique surgical management hasn’t changed, but the instruments and procedures we use to operate on children have evolved dramatically. Here’s a glimpse of the surgical state of the art then and now.
The 1920s marked the earliest use of scrub attire. White gowns, white masks and white linens emphasized the importance of cleanliness — and perhaps compensated for the dim lighting. Chloroform and ether, dating back before the Civil War, were the anesthetics of the day. Though penicillin was discovered in 1928, antibiotics were still two decades away from actual use. Imaging was limited to X-rays. It was in this setting that pediatric surgery began to evolve.
Today’s operations are increasingly more precise and less invasive. Surgeons can practice on custom 3-D models of patients’ anatomy, take an MRI scan mid-operation to ensure accuracy and (at least in animals) repair a still-beating heart with a patch delivered through a vein. “GPS” systems are guiding surgeons to deep lesions through the smallest possible incisions, lasers are replacing scalpels and robots are handling complex moves. Above, surgeons operate on a child with spasticity, opening a small window in his spine and carefully stimulating each nerve before deciding which to cut.
Four children with life-threatening malformations of blood vessels in the brain appear to be the first to benefit from 3D printing of their anatomy before undergoing high-risk corrective procedures.
The children, ranging from 2 months to 16 years old, all posed particular treatment challenges: cerebrovascular disease often entails complex tangles of vessels in sensitive brain areas.
“These children had unique anatomy with deep vessels that were very tricky to operate on,” says Boston Children’s neurosurgeon Edward Smith, MD, senior author of the paper and co-director of the hospital’s Cerebrovascular Surgery and Interventions Center. “The 3D-printed models allowed us to rehearse the cases beforehand and reduce operative risk as much as we could. You can physically hold the 3D models, view them from different angles, practice the operation with real instruments and get tactile feedback.” …
Although global health has come a long way over the past 25 years, access to surgical care remains very uneven across the world. Five billion people lack access to basic surgical care; this translates into unnecessary death and disability. More than one-third of all global deaths are from conditions requiring surgical care—more than the number of deaths from HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis and malaria combined. In addition, one-quarter of the world’s disability has been attributed to surgically treatable conditions.
In January 2014, an international team of 25 surgeons and public health experts launched The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery to address the widespread need for surgical care around the world. After 14 months of global consultation and four international meetings, the commission published a 32,000- word report today in TheLancet that provides a strategy for governments, policy makers, non-profits, funding agencies, academic institutions, professional associations, health care providers and local communities to engage in concrete action in low- and middle-income countries.
On May 6, the commission hosts its North American launch in Boston to present its key findings and priority action items. John G. Meara, MD, DMD, MBA, Plastic Surgeon-in Chief at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Kletjian Professor of Global Surgery at Harvard Medical School, is one of three chairs of the commission. We sat down with Meara to learn more about the commission’s work, which he describes as one of the “most impactful things he has done in his career to date.” …
The current method of suturing used in surgery—stitching with a needle and thread—has been around for thousands of years. Kaifeng Liu, MD, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, hopes to reimagine this fundamental operating room practice. His workbench is filled with various prototypes of a magnetic needle, a device he hopes will make suturing simpler, faster and more efficient for researchers and clinicians alike.
The neural tube, which becomes the spinal cord and brain, is supposed to close during the first month of prenatal development. 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.
New research from Boston Children’s Hospital, though still in animal models, suggests that standard amniocentesis, followed by one or more injections of cells into the womb, could be enough to at least partially repair spina bifida prenatally.
Currently, the standard procedure is to operate on infants soon after delivery. …
When surgeons perform image-guided minimally invasive procedures using an endoscope, some aspects of visualization and image quality are typically compromised as compared with open surgeries in which the physician can peer into the body. However, a new pressure-sensing material, placed over an endoscope, may someday provide surgeons with additional guidance and protect healthy tissue during these procedures.
“Neurosurgeons, especially pediatric neurosurgeons, are increasingly using neuroendoscopy to perform minimally invasive brain and spine surgery,” notes Patrick Codd, MD, from the Department of Neurosurgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, who was the lead author on a study evaluating this new material.
“Whenever you move to image-guided minimally invasive surgery, there is typically a tradeoff between the resolution of the image and the field of view,” where you have one but not the other, says Pierre Dupont, PhD, chief of Pediatric Cardiac Bioengineering at Boston Children’s and senior author on the study. …
A safe and effective adhesive, or glue, that can be used internally in the body has been a pressing need in medicine. Its creation has faced major hurdles—not the least of which is ensuring the glue is nontoxic and capable of repelling fluids—but a new study published today in Science Translational Medicine offers a potential breakthrough.
Congenital heart defects occur in nearly 1 in 100 births, and those that require treatment are plagued with multiple surgeries to deliver or replace implants that do not grow along with the child. Currently, therapies are invasive and challenging due to an inability to quickly and safely secure devices inside the heart. Sutures take too much time to stitch and can cause stress on fragile heart tissue, and the available clinical adhesives are subpar.
“Current glues are either toxic or easily washout in the presence of blood or react immediately upon contacting water,” says Pedro del Nido, MD, chief of Cardiac Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital and senior co-author of the study. “The available options also tend to lose their sticking power in the presence of blood or under dynamic conditions, such as in a beating heart.” …
Clinicians wanting to develop new devices and treatments for children face formidable barriers: regulators’ need to protect the most vulnerable coupled with a lack of commercial interest. But determined innovators do have options, including creative funding sources, says Thomas Krummel, MD, director of surgical innovation at Stanford Medical School.
“Technology developed specifically for children has been a low priority,” Krummel began at a two-part talk at Boston Children’s Hospital this summer (read our coverage of the other part). “The FDA barriers are incredibly high, and ultimately, investors just demand returns that pediatric markets won’t necessarily deliver.”
As Krummel detailed, the FDA barriers are there for a reason: a past history of ethical abuses in human subjects research. In 1966, physician Henry Beecher, MD, exposed many examples in The New England Journal of Medicine, such as withholding effective treatment for the sake of research, proceeding with a treatment despite recognized hazards, or failing to disclose risk to patients. Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) arose in the mid-1970s to protect research subjects—protections that are especially strict when that research is done in children.
But there’s also a deep-seated reluctance to break with the status quo. …
Innovation is inherent in surgery, says Thomas Krummel, MD, so for surgeons, the gap in launching an innovation isn’t the invention process but in the commercialization process. “Discovery and emerging technologies have shaped surgical practice from the start,” he said at a lecture at Boston Children’s Hospital this summer titled “Building on Robert E. Gross’s Legacy of Innovation.”
Krummel, who co-directs the Biodesign Innovation Program at Stanford University and and is Surgeon-in-Chief at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, challenged his audience of residents and surgeons. “A surgeon in an academic department must pull a new rabbit out of his hat” with some frequency, he argued, pointing to historical examples ranging from the pulse oximeter to the more recent development of the video laparoscopic camera.
He also noted the variety of attitudinal approaches that surgeons can take to potential innovations. Some involve fear, and some surgeons try to ignore the potential for change, hoping it will go away. In Krummel’s estimation, “that is not a very surgical approach.” …