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Interviewer: A teratoma is a congenital anomaly that can affect newborns. But what is it, and how can it be treated? I'm here with Dr. Fenton. He's an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Utah. And he's also the Director of the Utah Fetal Center. So Dr. Fenton, what is a teratoma?
Dr. Fenton: A teratoma is a collection of tissues that develop with the developing child, and it's oftentimes a remnant. So we don't exactly know why they form, but we know that they form as a result of extra developing tissue, if you will. So it can contain all types of tissue. muscle, skin, hair, teeth, has a very characteristic finding on ultrasound and on a CT or MRI because of the different types of tissue within it.
Interviewer: So you can actually see it while the fetus is developing?
Dr. Fenton: Yes. So they can be found on the screening ultrasound. Typically, it's noted to be an abnormal mass either in the chest or let's say at the end of the tailbone, more commonly at the end of the tailbone than in the chest. And because of that mass, they're usually referred to a high-risk OB or a maternal fetal medicine physician and/or a fetal center like the Utah Fetal Center, where the mom will undergo a more formal, specific ultrasound and sometimes an MRI to further characterize this mass.
Interviewer: So when you find this teratoma, what is the course of action from there on? When do you get in there to try to help treat it?
Dr. Fenton: First of all, we want to confirm what the findings are. And so again, typically they will go to, say, the Utah Fetal Center, and they'll be seen by a maternal fetal medicine physician, who will have them undergo a specialized ultrasound, which will look at the mass further. Obviously, other masses can develop. These have characteristic findings because of the multiple different tissues that are within it, which will help us kind of determine whether we feel like it's a teratoma or something else.
In that case, when we feel like it is a teratoma, we will follow the mom very carefully because we know that the teratoma will grow. And it can cause a couple of problems with growth. So let's say it's hanging off of the tailbone. The growth is not really restricted because it's not in a contained space.
But what can happen is because of excessive growth, it can actually have an increased blood flow through it, which could lead to strain on the heart and could actually cause the child to go into heart failure. We call it hydrops. So you start seeing swelling of the child's tissue fluid within the chest, fluid within the abdomen. And hydrops is obviously very dangerous for an unborn child. And so we would want to try and intervene on that before really hydrops is discovered.
And so, in the case of a sacrococcygeal teratoma, we can look at other things that tell us that the child is starting to have strain. And if that's the case, if the child is very young, let's say less than 28 weeks gestation, then we would advocate for a fetal surgery, where that portion of the child is actually delivered outside of the womb, and the tumor debulbed, or the majority of it is removed, not completely but removed to the point where it should decrease the chance or eliminate the chance of further cardiac compromise on the kid.
Interviewer: And what about if it forms in, say, the chest because that's the second most common, in the mediastinal area?
Dr. Fenton: That's correct, the anterior mediastinum, so it's in front of . . . it's right underneath the sternum or that middle chest bone. And the problem with that is usually later on in pregnancy, because as it grows, it starts to compress a couple of things. So first of all, it can compress the airway. Now, a child in the womb doesn't breathe because it has the maternal support from the placenta. But when the child is born, that can obviously cause some real problems, especially when the child tries to take the first breath.
But also, it can push on the vessels of the heart. And so the cardiac function is compromised in that the heart is really trying to pump hard but can't get blood out. And, again, we can start seeing signs of hydrops or heart failure on a child, and we would want to intervene sooner than later.
And if the kid gets to about 28 weeks, we want to try and get them as close to term as possible, but when they get to at least 28 weeks, we would advocate to deliver them early. And the way we would deliver them is by doing what we call an exit procedure, or it's an ex utero intrapartum therapy. So it's outside of the uterus, but still within the birthing process. And so we can actually deliver the head of the child in this case, leave the rest in the uterus so that the placenta still works, and put a tube in their throat to make sure that they can breathe properly before we deliver them completely. Or I was going to say in extreme cases, we could actually open the chest and take out the tumor while on placental support as well.
Interviewer: And for the mother whose newborn child may have a teratoma, what can her expectations be for her child?
Dr. Fenton: I think a lot of that depends on when it's found and the state of the child. So what I mean by that is if it's found very early in pregnancy, and there's no real compromise to the child, we can follow them closely to the point where something can happen and help that child get to delivery. A child that has hydrops has a very high mortality rate or death rate, and we want to try and intervene before that happens. In a newborn, so a child who has been born where a teratoma is found and the child is doing well, most of those can be removed. And when they're removed early, there's a smaller chance that there will be a malignant component to it or require further treatment and a higher chance that the surgery is all that is necessary.
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