Fighting Hydrocephalus

“Here at the University of Minnesota, hydrocephalus is the most common condition we treat in pediatric neurosurgery,” explained Daniel Guillaume, M.D., M.S., associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School, “and as such we are constantly searching for better treatments.”

One to two of every 1,000 babies are born with hydrocephalus, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The number of people people currently living with the condition is difficult to establish however, because it can also become symptomatic later in life.

Hydrocephalus is a serious condition with many causes, which in some cases are not fully understood. The primary characteristic is the buildup of too much cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain and spinal cord. That causes potentially harmful pressure on brain tissue. Without treatment, the outcome can result in severe disability and even death.

The most common treatment for hydrocephalus is brain surgery to divert the CSF, usually by placement of a shunt. This method of treatment has been in place for the last 60 years. The failure rate for shunts in the pediatric population is nearly 50 percent within 5 years, and they pose a constant, lifetime risk of failure or infection.

Researchers at the U are working to change the treatment and management options for hydrocephalus. Cornelius Lam, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neurosurgery has hopes of identifying options for a cure. Lam’s work, supported by the NIH, seeks to understand CSF pathways . Lam and Guillaume have recently planned more work, collaborating with another University of Minnesota scientist on a project they hope will lead to different treatment options. Their work is still in the very early stages.

“We plan to look at certain genetic types of hydrocephalus in a worm model and learn from babies born with this type of X-linked hydrocephalus,” detailed Guillaume.

The team has already collected compelling data, but federal funding does not fully cover the costs. Partnerships with community groups and private donations are critical to advancing this work and other projects like it.

For the past two years, the Department of Neurosurgery has received just over $33,000 from local organization “For the Love of Pete.” The non-profit was created by a family of a young boy with hydrocephalus, treated at the U since birth. Now 9 years old, Pete combines his love for the sport of golf with a passion to help others with his condition with an annual event called “Putt with Pete.”

Researchers like Guillaume cannot stress enough how important contributions like Pete’s are- helping make the change they are striving for, possible.

“It is an exciting time in hydrocephalus research and here at the U of M. We are working hard to improve the lives of those patients suffering from this condition,” said Guillaume.