Test for baby’s DNA in the womb

Invasive testingA Hong Kong scientist has discovered a technique for analysing the entire DNA profile of an unborn child by testing the mother’s blood. Dennis Lo, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that it will be possible to test for all kinds of diseases and disorders.

"Uncovering the foetal genome amongst floating DNA is technologically akin to finding a needle in a haystack," researchers from his team told the London Telegraph. "The non-invasive nature of our approach makes it safer than conventional procedures that require invasive sampling. However the new approach also raises a number of ethical, legal and social issues that require active discussion among clinicians, scientists, ethicists and the community."

Although media coverage focused on the exciting possibility of tests which have no risk of miscarriage, the obvious question is what should be done with the information. In many cases, parents will abort the child. Ironically, the headline in one newspaper was “DNA test to save the unborn”.

Dr David King, of Human Genetics Alert, a UK lobby group, commented: "The danger of this new method is that it will encourage parental choosiness about minor imperfections, or even cosmetic features.”

Dr Lo and his team tested successfully for beta-thalassemia, a genetic disease which causes anaemia. But they also hope that the test can be used to detect Down syndrome, Edwards’ syndrome and Patau’s syndrome, which can result in severe impairment. Eventually it could be possible to screen for disorders like muscular dystrophy and haemophilia.

At the moment, application in a clinical setting is remote because the results are complex and hard to interpret. "We're about a factor of 100 away from commercial capability, but that will change," Charles Cantor, one of the co-authors of the study and chief scientific advisor at the genetic testing firm Sequenom, based in San Diego, told Nature. ~ London Telegraph, Dec 9

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