Study Allows Scientists to Test Unborn Babies for 3,500 Genetic Faults

Scientists will probably have an opportunity to screen unborn babies for thousands of genetic conditions, raising concerns the breakthrough could lead to more abortions.

The prenatal testing could allow doctors to test for 3,500 genetic disorders in unborn babies. Photo: BP1269/Flickr

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

“This is potentially a two-edged sword. Although it might pick up more curable conditions, some experts worry that it may lead to more abortions,” the report claims.

American scientists managed 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, writes NBC Southern California.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of technology, really quite remarkable,” said Peter Benn, professor of genetics and developmental biology at the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the work. “What I see in this paper is a glance into the future.”

Many experts predict that in case the technique is refined and the technology becomes inexpensive, this type of screening could allow doctors to screen unborn babies by taking a blood sample from the mother and a swab of saliva from the father.

“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 a health expert Dr. Bruce Hensel.

However, some medics believe the finding is a double-edged sword, and could potentially raise ethical concerns.

“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 said.

Although the test is believed to become a considerable improvement on current techniques, which involve inserting a probe into the womb to take fluid from the foetal sac or placental samples, this can be dangerous for both mother and child, claims The Telegraph.

Such methods only allow checking a person for a relatively small number of genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome and cystic fibrosis – which are both large-scale genetic defects – as well as muscular dystrophy and spina bifada, which can have hereditary elements.

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.”

As well as testing for thousands of genetic defects, the scientists said their test could give a wealth of information on the baby’s future health.

“The less tangible implication of incorporating this level of information into pre-natal decision-making raises many ethical questions that must be considered carefully within the scientific community and on a societal level,” the scientists warned.

“As in other areas of clinical genetics, our capacity to generate data is outstripping our ability to interpret it in ways that are useful to physicians and patients,” they added.

Nonetheless, Josephine Quintavalle, founder of the Pro-Life Alliance, put it more baldly: “One always hopes, vainly, that in utero testing will be for the benefit of the unborn child.”

She continued: “But, whilst this new test may not itself be invasive, given our past track record, it is difficult to imagine that this new test will not lead to more abortions.”

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