Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
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.
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 is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.