Two unborn babies have had their spinal cords repaired by surgeons – weeks before they took their first breaths.

The operations – the first of their kind in the UK – were performed at London's University College Hospital this summer while the babies were still in the womb.

Both suffered from spina bifida, a condition that develops during pregnancy when the bones of the spine do not form properly, creating a gap that leaves the spinal cord unprotected.

It can cause a baby's spinal fluid to leak and put brain development at risk.

It is usually treated after birth but research shows repairing the baby's spine earlier can stop the loss of spinal fluid and lead to better long-term health and mobility.

Pregnant women in the UK previously had to travel to the US, Belgium or Switzerland for the procedure, which takes around 90 minutes and carries a risk of premature labour.

"We put the mum on some drugs that help relax them, but there is still a risk," said UCLH's Professor Anne David, who has been working for three years to bring the procedure to patients in the UK.

She co-ordinated the surgeries carried out by a 30-strong team from UCLH and Great Ormond Street Hospital, which travelled to Belgium to train at a facility in Leuven, where more than 40 such operations have been carried out.

More than 200 children are born with spina bifida every year in the UK, according to charity Shine.

The roll-out of the pre-birth surgery in the UK comes after a major US trial showed a 50% reduction in the need to have shunts inserted in the brain to drain fluid, a procedure that carries long-term complications.

Children in the US study were also more independent after the surgery, Prof David said.

"There were some children who had grown up following foetal surgery who were walking and you wouldn't expect them to be walking if they hadn't had it," she said.

"So it's important to be able to offer the surgery to patients here in the UK."

The surgeries will be available for suitable patients through the newly established Centre for Prenatal Therapy at UCLH and GOSH, made possible by funding of £450,000 from the hospitals' charities.

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"These vital funds have provided training for the surgical team and will fund surgery for the first 10 patients," said UCLH's clinical director for women's health Professor Donald Peebles.

Frankie Lavis, from Plymouth, was the first British baby to undergo the surgery in Belgium in 2013.

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