Study Increases Scientists' Ability to Test Unborn Babies for Genetic Disorders

The potential screening could allow doctors to test for 3,500 genetic disorders in unborn babies. Currently, they can only test for Down Syndrome

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    NEWSLETTERS

    New genetic testing for unborn babies could help identify thousands of potential health disorders. Some experts question if the findings could raise ethical issues, namely, what do parents do if they discover their unborn child has a genetic disorder? Michelle Valles reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on June 6, 2012.

    Prospective parents might soon be able to screen their unborn babies for thousands of genetic disorders, according to a study published by Science Translations Medicine.

    This is potentially a two-edged sword, according to experts: Although the test might pick up more curable conditions earlier, some worry that it may lead to more abortions.

    American scientists were able to map the baby’s genetic code form tiny traces of free-floating DNA in blood from the baby’s mother, who was 18 weeks pregnant. They were also able to pinpoint if the mutations came from the mother or father’s side.

    If the technique is refined and the technology becomes inexpensive, as many experts predict, this type of prenatal testing could allow doctors to screen unborn babies for 3,500 genetic disorders by taking a blood sample from the mother and a swab of saliva from the father.

    Now, the only genetic disorder routinely testing is Down Syndrome.

    “On the positive side, picking up genetic problems early may lead to better treatments, sometimes while the baby is still a fetus, sometimes right after birth and that might prevent complications,” said NBC4 health expert Dr. Bruce Hensel.

    “It might give peace of mind if (parents) don’t find problems. On the other hand, it could lead to dilemmas – what do you do about them can you treat them, might it lead to more abortions?” Hensel added.

    The genetic predictions in the study were confirmed by analyzing umbilical cord blood collected at the baby’s birth.

    The test is not being used yet, and experts said the methods will have to refined before the screenings are widely used.

    “This is only preliminary. We’ll need to see if the test is consistently accurate, because we’re looking at the mother’s blood, not the baby’s, and it might not be 100 percent accurate,” Hensel said. “You don’t want to find potential genetic disorders that don’t pan out to be a real problem at all.”

    Scientists contend that this type of testing is not as dangerous as some of the testing done with the mother and the womb.

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