Stanford researchers move fetal genome testing ahead

Posted: July 5, 2012 at 2:17 am

(07-04) 12:00 PDT Stanford -- In a discovery that widens a lens into lives not yet lived, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have for the first time determined an unborn child's genome with nothing but a blood sample from the mother.

This new approach to genetic testing, the scientists say, could expand families' ability to screen for potential disorders in fetuses without the risk of miscarriage that comes with conventional tests. In a few years, the testing could be part of a routine trip to the doctor.

But outside experts argue it raises an ethical question that physicians and parents are not prepared to answer: Who deserves to be born?

"Many families would dread having a child with Down syndrome," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest group in Berkeley. "And, absolutely no questions asked, that would be a reason for them to terminate."

The latest development in genome testing, outlined Wednesday in the science journal Nature, falls in the same vein as a June study from the University of Washington. Scientists there sequenced a fetus's DNA using both a blood sample from the pregnant woman and a saliva sample from the father.

The Stanford team accomplished the same feat with Dad out of the picture. Their method is advantageous, they say, when a child's paternity is unknown, as it is for an estimated 3 to 10 percent of births in the United States.

"Oftentimes, the person who thinks he's a father is not the biological father," said the study's senior author, Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics.

With his approach, which can be used any time during the pregnancy, parents could screen for a range of medical conditions, allowing them to prepare for proper care, Quake said.

"Things like metabolic disorders and immune disorders you could find out ahead of time, so when the baby's born, you know exactly what to feed them or, more importantly, not to feed them so they don't get sick; or what environment they need to be in to protect them from germs," Quake said.

But one ethicist pointed to a potential dark side.

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Stanford researchers move fetal genome testing ahead

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