Michael R. Harrison worked as a pediatric surgeon in the US throughout the late-twentieth century and performed many fetal surgeries, including one of the first successful surgeries on a fetus in utero, or while it is still in its gestational carrier’s body, also called open fetal surgery. A fetus is an organism developing inside of the uterus that is anywhere from eight weeks old to birth. Harrison hypothesized that open fetal surgery could correct developmental defects that may become fatal to the fetus at birth. After years of research, Harrison and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, in San Francisco, California, performed surgery on the fetus of a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy to correct the fetus’s developmental defects. The surgery was successful, as the fetus developed into a healthy child. Harrison’s work led to advancements in fetal treatment techniques, such as a method to conduct open fetal surgery that will not harm the fetus or pregnant woman, as well as the establishment of one of the first fetal treatment centers in the US.
In 1996, Michael R. Harrison published “Fetal Surgery” in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In the article, Harrison describes the importance of fetal surgery and the techniques used to correct defects in fetuses. As a fetus develops in the uterus, it can develop abnormalities that may become debilitating or fatal. Harrison discusses cases that show how physicians can use fetal surgery to repair such abnormalities, including obstructions in the heart or urinary tract, or organs or muscles whose malformations impair function. Harrison states where knowledge is lacking within the field or where surgery would be inappropriate, such as in the modification of a cleft lip, which can be fixed after birth and as such does not merit the risks of surgery. In the article, Harrison provides a summary of what information existed about fetal surgeries in 1996, which helped physicians explore fetal surgery and make further advancements.
In 2018, He Jiankui uploaded a series of videos to a YouTube channel titled “The He Lab” that detailed one of the first instances of a successful human birth after genome editing had been performed on an embryo using CRISPR-cas9. CRISPR-cas9 is a genome editing tool derived from bacteria that can be used to cut out and replace specific sequences of DNA. He genetically modified embryos at his lab in Shenzhen, China, to make them immune to contracting HIV through indirect perinatal transmission from their father, who was infected with the virus. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune cells of its host and weakens their ability to fight off diseases. At the time of He’s experiment, various treatments already existed at that could prevent the fetuses from contracting HIV without the need for gene surgery. Nonetheless, He’s experiment led to one of the first successful births of fetuses resulting from genetically modified embryos. He kept his experiment secret until he uploaded the videos announcing the birth of the fetuses, born as two twin girls. The experiment discussed in the videos was successful, but many scientists criticized the experiment due to ethical concerns with the way He conducted it.
In 1861, William John Little published, “On The Influence of Abnormal Parturition, Difficult Labors, Premature Birth, and Asphyxia Neonatorum, on the Mental and Physical Condition of the Child, Especially in Relation to Deformities,” hereafter “Abnormal Parturition,” in the Transactions of the Obstetrical Society of London. In the article, Little discussed the causes and types of what he refers to as abnormal births, and theorized how those births affect an infant’s likelihood of exhibiting a deformity. Little defined abnormal births as those involving an atypical maternal or fetal presentation, such as a slow birthing process or a fetus exiting the birth canal feet first rather than head first. In his article, Little published one of the first definitional frameworks to describe a condition causing rigidity and stiffness in the limbs that is often associated with birth-related trauma, which was then called Little’s disease, but is modernly known as spastic Cerebral Palsy.
William John Little was one of the first orthopedic surgeons to research congenital malformations and their causes in the nineteenth century and presented preliminary research on a condition modernly known as cerebral palsy, a condition of varying severity that affects a person’s ability to move. Little worked throughout the United Kingdom for the majority of the time he practiced medicine, and eventually founded one of the first orthopedic infirmaries, the Royal Orthopedic Hospital in London, England. Throughout his career, Little studied congenital malformations, which are medical conditions inherited before birth, as well as how certain medical circumstances during delivery affect the neonate. In 1861, he described a condition with motor, behavioral, and cognitive irregularities in neonates, linked with oxygen deprivation during birth. Little’s research on that condition, originally called Little’s disease, and modernly, spastic cerebral palsy, was one of the first accounts of cerebral palsy in infants.