Australian surgeons saved the leg of an unborn baby by operating when her mother was just 22 weeks' pregnant, in what may be the earliest in utero surgery of its type, the hospital said Monday.
Baby girl Leah had a rare condition in which stray bands of tissue wrap themselves around the developing foetus's limbs or digits, in this case both her legs, and cut off blood flow.
Her parents decided to go ahead with the operation after being told she faced the prospect of both her feet being amputated by the constricting bands as she grew within the womb.
A spokeswoman for Melbourne's Monash Medical Centre said the surgery was believed to be a world first because doctors usually hold back on operating until the mother is 28 weeks' pregnant to better the baby's chances of survival.
"Because of the severity of the bands they decided that the best thing was to operate," she told AFP.
Doctors pierced the mother's abdomen with a two-millimetre (0.08 inch) thick telescopic needle to allow them to apply laser and electric current to cut the band above the baby's left foot.
But the right leg was so badly affected, with the band having cut through to the bone, that surgeon Chris Kimber decided to leave the already swollen and infected foot alone.
"The right leg was so bad that I did not want to touch it," Kimber told The Age newspaper. "This foot was as close to dead as you could get. It was dangling on one tiny artery."
At the time of the operation late last year, Leah measured 15-20 centimetres (6-8 inches). By the time her mother gave birth to her eight weeks later in January, she weighed 1.63 kilograms (3 pounds 9 ounces).
After the birth, doctors operated to save the gangrenous right leg and are now confident she will have full function in the foot and be able to walk.
Amniotic band syndrome involves tissue from the fine lining of the protective sac in which the baby grows becoming entangled in the foetus's limbs. It occurs in about one in 15,000 births.