Division of Pediatric Surgery team performs first fetal spina bifida repair surgery in Arizona

March 18, 2024

College of Medicine – Tucson Department of Surgery

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson Department of Surgery is proud to announce its historical achievement of performing the first spina bifida fetal surgery in the state of Arizona. The procedure involved a delicate spina bifida repair on a fetus during the twenty-fifth week of pregnancy after it was detected at 22 weeks. The successful surgery, completed on Feb. 19, 2024, was performed by co-surgeons, Kenneth Liechty, MD, the division chief of pediatric surgery and director of Fetal Medicine at Banner – University Medicine, and Anthony Avellino, MD, the director of pediatric neurosurgery, and their medical team.

“Learning that your unborn child needs a fetal intervention is one of the most stressful situations a family can experience and our ability to keep families close to their social support network within our state and community is a great advantage for the baby’s outcome, as this type of surgery requires a comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment plan," Liechty told KGUN

This procedure underscores the power of academic partnerships and scientific innovation in advancing health care between the Center for Fetal Medicine at Banner Children's and its academic research partner, the University of Arizona Department of Surgery, and their combined specialized capabilities in fetal surgery. This partnership encompasses a comprehensive team from Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and Banner Children’s at Diamond Children’s Medical Center. The team includes but is not limited to a pediatric fetal surgeon, maternal-fetal medicine specialist, neonatologist, fetal nurse practitioner, geneticist, social worker and specific pediatric/fetal subspecialists in neurosurgery, neurology, nephrology, cardiology, radiology, anesthesiology and more.

"The ability to successfully perform the first-ever fetal surgery in Arizona is the result of bringing decades of scientific discovery and research into our academic partnership with Banner Health, ensuring that our state and the surrounding communities we serve have access to safe, proven, state-of-the science multi-disciplinary patient care. At the same time, researchers in the college of medicine continue to investigate novel ways to promote tissue regeneration and post-surgical healing, as well as the application of technologies like 3-D fetal imaging and 3-D printing that allow for the careful planning and virtual performance of these delicate surgical procedures, prior to and in anticipation of the actual surgeries,” said Michael M.I. Abecassis, MD, MBA, the Iovanna C. Lopez Endowed Dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

Liechty, the vice chair of research in the Department of Surgery, also runs the Laboratory for Fetal and Regenerative Biology which focuses on healing, injury response and regenerative medicine, particularly in understanding fetal regenerative mechanisms, stem cell involvement in tissue repair and correcting abnormal healing in the adult.

The successful procedure marks a monumental advancement in Arizona's fetal surgery landscape, providing local families access to cutting-edge care previously only available out of state. With a focus on research, technology and compassionate care, the Department of Surgery's clinical partner, Banner's Center for Fetal Medicine, is poised to continue transforming the landscape of fetal surgery and maternal-fetal medicine.