A new kind of prenatal test designed to identify potential genetic flaws in the fetus can sometimes also pick up undiagnosed cancer in the expectant mother.
A study on 8 women caused the unexpected connection to emerge, as they received further testing after preliminary results of the prenatal blood test came back abnormal. After researchers performed a subsequent assessment, it turned out their babies were normal. But something else came up as well.
Following a second analysis of the mothers’ DNA, researchers discovered that said anomalies were in fact linked to cancer in all of the women. The report was made public at an International Society for Prenatal Diagnosis conference in Washington, D.C., presenting both the challenges and the opportunities this test offers.
Ever since it was launched on the market in 2011, the noninvasive prenatal blood test has been identifying fetal abnormalities by analyzing the blood of the pregnant woman. This test can sometimes determine the fetus’ chance of being at risk for the Down syndrome – with just one blood test.
But after the new study, researchers discovered the test has other abilities. Besides studying the maternal and fetal DNA, the test can also detect cancer in expectant mothers, which is something Diana Bianchi, chief director of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center, Boston never expected to find.
The study conducted by Dr. Bianchi was also made public online in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
At first the test were only recommended to women whose fetuses were considered at risk of developing chromosomal abnormalities, but soon, clinicians and patients have started using it more liberally. According to Dr. Bianchi, more than 2 million tests have been performed world-wide ever since their launch in in 2011.
Among the eight women in the study, three owe the discovery of their cancers to this type of prenatal tests which showed abnormal results. Incidental findings – a term used for unexpected results from genetic tests – have raised concerns among clinicians who debate about how or if the information should be delivered to patients.
The debates are the result of the fact that there is no consensus as to how a doctor should proceed if, for example, a genetic test for a childhood disease inadvertently reveals the patient has an elevated risk for lung cancer later in life.
In the current case of discovering cancer in the expectant mother, Dr. Bianchi admits that this unexpected finding is rather interesting, as the mother should or could immediately do something about it.
As with most discoveries, further research is needed before experts grasp the full implications of the prenatal test’s unique abilities.
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