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Society – Stem cell hope for cleft palate babies

December 2018

Adult stem cells could be used in the future to heal babies with cleft palates, a pioneering new treatment in Colombia has shown.

The condition is an abnormality whereby the part of skull which connects the mouth to the nose has not developed. It affects around one in every 700 births.

Cleft palates, although treatable, have been labelled as a ‘serious handicap’ under UK abortion law. It means that an unborn child with a cleft palate could be aborted right up to birth.

Cleft palates are usually repaired with surgery in early childhood, which often involves bone grafts and carries the risk of complications.

But now scientists in Colombia say that blood taken from the umbilical cord could be used as an alternative to bone grafts. Researchers at the Hospital De San José in Bogotá successfully trialled the procedure with nine children over the last ten years.

One girl diagnosed with cleft palate while in the womb had blood taken and stored from her stem-cell rich umbilical cord once she was born. She wore a device similar to a dental retainer to reshape the soft tissue in her jaw for the first five months of her life.

Alongside routine surgery to correct the upper lip, the girl’s stem cells were injected into the area where the bone was missing. The procedure proved successful. The girl grew new bone, and her teeth were growing normally.

The researchers added the girl would not need any follow-up surgery, following the successful treatment. They called for more studies to be conducted into the uses of adult stem cells.

In 2016 it was reported that the number of abortions for the minor facial defect had almost tripled since 2011. Pro-life MP Fiona Bruce said abortions on such grounds were ‘deeply disturbing’. Pro-life Peer Lord Alton branded them ‘unconscionable’. He said, ‘For the law to allow this up to birth should be unthinkable’.