Father of Fetal Surgery Looks Ahead

By Janet Basu

Michael Harrison

In 1981, when UCSF pediatric surgeon Michael Harrison, MD, led the first operation on a fetus inside the mother's womb, he ushered in a new era of surgical intervention for birth defects. A team of physicians, surgeons, caregivers and researchers from many fields joined together as the UCSF Fetal Treatment Center, now renowned for international leadership in evaluating fetal anomalies and providing innovative treatment for mother and child. Now in its 25th year, the Fetal Treatment Center at UCSF Children's Hospital has a new home -- a center for diagnosis, consultation and care for mothers expecting a child with a birth defect. The center includes an innovative web portal to allow patients and referring physicians from across the country and around the world to communicate with Fetal Treatment Center physicians in real time over a secure Internet connection. It was funded in large part by a $500,000 congressional appropriation initiated by US Representative Nancy Pelosi and a grant from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health.

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In a ribbon-cutting ceremony on March 24, Pelosi joined UCSF representatives and families of patients to formally open the new center. In an interview with UCSF Public Affairs, Harrison says that it all began with a clinical necessity -- to save the lives of babies who would be unable to sustain life once they were born. Harrison says the true heroes of fetal treatment are the mothers, whose operations for the sake of their babies led to medical advances for all. Thanks to knowledge that allows mothers and their doctors to plan for treatment before or soon after birth, Harrison says, the difference in options for a woman whose child has been diagnosed with a serious birth defect 25 years ago or today is "like night and day; like going from zero to full speed." When the International Fetal Medical and Surgical Society holds its annual meeting in Hawaii in June 2006, the scientific meeting will include a gala celebrating Harrison's leadership in the field -- more than half the society's members have spent time at UCSF as residents, fellows or visiting scholars. Harrison says he is particularly proud of the talented young doctors and scientists from around the world who contributed to the effort and went on to become leaders in the field. In this podcast, Harrison predicts that fetal treatment will evolve beyond surgery to stem cell, gene and cell-replacement therapy. For these promising technologies, he says, the fetus may be the ideal patient. Editor's note: A transcript of the interview with Michael Harrison is available. Please contact Janet Basu.

Related Links:

UCSF Fetal Treatment Center UCSF Children's Hospital