In 1961 before Congress, and in 1962 at Rice University, Houston, President John F. Kennedy called on America to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely, and to look beyond the moon as well, and pursue an ambitious space exploration program. He challenged the country to think and act boldly, telling Americans in his speech at Rice that “we choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon in 1969 – even before President Kennedy’s 10-year deadline had arrived – the country’s primary moonshot was realized. The President had inspired the nation, teams of engineers and others had collectively met daunting technological challenges, and space consequently was more open to us than ever before.
In looking at the field of obstetrics and how far it has come in the past 50 years, since the 1960s, it is similarly astonishing and inspiring to reflect on what extraordinary advances we have made. Who would have thought that the fetus would become such a visible and intimate patient – one who, like the mother, can be interrogated, monitored, and sometimes treated before birth? Who would have thought we would be utilizing genomic studies in a now well-established field of prenatal diagnosis, or that fetal therapy would become a field in and of itself?
Our specialty has advanced through a series of moonshots that have been inspired and driven by technological advancement and by our continually bold goals and vision for the health and well-being of women and their offspring. We have taken on ambitious challenges, achieved many goals, and embraced advancements in practice only to then set new targets that previously were unimaginable.
Yet just as our country’s space exploration program has faced disappointments, so has our field. It is sobering, for instance, that we have made only incremental improvements in prematurity and infant mortality, and that the age-old maternal problem of preeclampsia is still with us. We also face new challenges, such as the rising rate of maternal obesity and diabetes, which threaten both maternal and fetal health.
President Kennedy spoke of having “examined where we are strong, and where we are not.” Such self-reflection and assessment is a critical underpinning of advancement in fields across all of science, medicine, and health care, and in our specialty, it is a process that has driven ambitious new research efforts to improve fetal and maternal health.
A step back to more in-depth fundamental research on the biomolecular mechanisms of premature labor and diabetes-associated birth defects, for instance, as well as new efforts to approach fetal surgery less invasively, are positioning us to both conquer our disappointments and achieve ambitious new moonshots.
The fetus as our patient
Fifty years ago, in 1966, a seminal paper in the Lancet reported that amniotic fluid cells could be cultured and were suitable for karyotyping (1:383-5). The tapping and examination of amniotic fluid had been reported on sporadically for many decades, for various clinical purposes, but by and large the fetal compartment was not invaded or directly examined. The fetus was instead the hopeful beneficiary of pregnancy care that focused on the mother. Fetal outcome was clouded in mystery, known only at birth.
With the Lancet report, prenatal detection of chromosomal disorders began to feel achievable, and the 1960s marked the beginning of a journey first through invasive methods of prenatal diagnosis and then through increasingly non-invasive approaches.
In 1970, just several years after the report on chromosome analysis of amniotic-fluid cells, another landmark paper in the New England Journal of Medicine described 162 amniocenteses performed between the 13th and 18th weeks of gestation and the detection of 10 cases of Down syndrome, as well as a few other cases of metabolic and other disorders (282:596-9). This report provided an impetus for broader use of the procedure to detect neural tube defects, Down syndrome, and other abnormalities.
The adoption of amniocentesis for prenatal diagnosis still took some time, however. The procedure was used primarily early on to determine fetal lung maturity, and to predict the ability of the fetus to survive after delivery.
At the time, it was widely praised as an advanced method for evaluating the fetus. Yet, looking back, the early years of the procedure seem primitive. The procedure was done late in pregnancy and it was performed blindly, with the puncture site located either with external palpation of the uterus or with the assistance of static ultrasound. Patients who had scans would usually visit the radiologist, who would mark on the patient’s abdomen a suggested location for needle insertion. Upon the patient’s return, the obstetrician would then insert a needle into that spot, blindly and likely after the fetus had moved.