A new scientific development could change the lives of babies born with a cleft palate.

Scientists at the STFC laboratory in Oxford, England have made a promising breakthrough that could treat the problem without the need for complex surgery.

Currently surgeons use tissue from the structure at the roof of the mouth to cover the gap in the palate. However, if the cleft defect is too wide, more radical surgery may be needed which could lead to the child developing speech and facial growth problems.

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford, the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Ga., is looking at using a special material called hydrogel instead.

A small plate made of the gel material — similar to that used in contact lenses — is placed under the roof of the mouth of the patient. It gradually expands as fluid is absorbed, which encourages skin growth over and around the plate — a process known as "tissue expansion."

When sufficient skin has been generated to repair the palatal cleft, the plate is removed and the cleft is then repaired by using this additional tissue.

Preliminary trials have been successful and clinical trials in the U.K. are expected to take place early in 2011.

Cleft palates are the most common birth defect in the United States. the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association said on its Web site. More than 6,800 children are affected by cleft palates each year in the U.S.

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