Biomedical Engineering Professor Aijun Wang Part of Groundbreaking Fetal Spina Bifida Treatment
A groundbreaking approach to treating spina bifida in developing babies combining fetal surgery with stem cells at UC Davis Health received research assistance from Biomedical Engineering Professor Aijun Wang.
Diana Farmer, the world’s first woman fetal surgeon and chair of surgery at UC Davis Health, is the principal investigator in the CuRe Trial, or Cellular Therapy for In Utero Repair of Myelomeningocele.
As a leader of the Management of Myelomeningocele Study (MOMS) clinical trial in the early 2000s, Farmer had previously helped to prove that fetal surgery reduced neurological deficits from spina bifida. Many children in that study showed improvement but still required wheelchairs or leg braces.
Farmer recruited Wang to help take that work to the next level. Together, they launched the UC Davis Health Surgical Bioengineering Laboratory to find ways to use stem cells and bioengineering to advance surgical effectiveness and improve outcomes.
Farmer, Wang and their research team have been working on their novel approach using stem cells in fetal surgery for more than 10 years. Over that time, animal modeling has shown it is capable of preventing the paralysis associated with spina bifida.
Preliminary work by Farmer and Wang proved that prenatal surgery combined with human placenta-derived mesenchymal stromal cells, held in place with a biomaterial scaffold to form a “patch,” helped lambs with spina bifida walk without noticeable disability. Farmer and Wang then worked with Dori Borjesson, director of the university’s Veterinary Institute for Regenerative Cures at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, to refine their surgical techniques for dogs with spina bifida after Wang identified two candidates.
The bulldogs Wang identified became the world’s first dogs to be treated with surgery and stem cells and paved the way for the CuRe trial’s groundbreaking spina bifida stem cell surgery. Thirty-five patients in total will receive the one-of-a-kind treatment, delivered while a fetus is still developing in the mother’s womb. As of December 2022, four CuRe trial babies have been born and the CuRe team will continue to monitor them until they are 6 years old.