Blood Test For Baby’s Gender Accurate, Potentially Controversial

| August 11, 2011

On its front page, the New York Times (8/10, A1, Belluck, Subscription Publication) reports that according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "a simple blood test that can determine a baby's sex as early as seven weeks into pregnancy is highly accurate if used correctly." Experts predict that "parents concerned about gender-linked diseases, those who are merely curious, and people considering the more ethically controversial step of selecting the sex of their children" are all likely to utilize this technology. The Times says similar tests have previously been commercially available but were often inaccurate. In response to concerns of gender selection, some companies require waivers from customers saying they will not use the test for that purpose.

USA Today (8/10, Szabo) reports, "The technology works by detecting 'cell-free fetal DNA,' or DNA from the fetus, which floats freely in a pregnant woman's blood." USA Today also notes specific concerns about possible misuse of the technology, citing a study in The Lancet estimating that "between 4.2 million and 12.1 million female fetuses were 'selectively' aborted in India from 1980 to 2010, a practice that is noticeably skewing the ratio of boys and girls in that country."

The AP (8/10, Tanner) specifies that the procedure tested in this study uses a PCR test for Y chromosome DNA to tell whether the fetus is biologically male or female. AP notes that testing was performed in research settings, while "tests that companies sell directly to consumers were not examined in the analysis." Researchers stated that "blood tests like those studied could be a breakthrough for women at risk of having babies with certain diseases, who could avoid invasive procedures if they learned their fetus was a gender not affected by those illnesses."

The Los Angeles Times (8/9, Khan) "Booster Shots" blog reported, "The researchers found that tests…are about 95% to 99% accurate, depending on several factors. They can be used well before ultrasound…and aren't invasive, unlike amniocentesis, which carries a small but real risk of miscarriage." However, science writer Karen Kaplan warns that "There's a whole industry of questionable genetic tests put out by 'entrepreneurs' that promise to tell parents-to-be practically anything about their future children, from ethnic heritage to most viable future sports activities."

The Wall Street Journal (8/9, Hobson, Subscription Publication) "Health Blog" noted that some diseases, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, require corticosteroid treatment of the mother throughout her pregnancy if the fetus is female. Therefore, the test would find that a woman carrying a female child with this condition should be treated, while a woman carrying a male child with the condition could avoid such treatment.

According to the Boston Globe (8/9, Kotz) "Daily Dose" blog, currently available tests in the US are unregulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. Notably, "Several years ago, Lowell-based Acu-Gen Laboratories promised that its Baby Gender Mentor blood test was '99.9 percent accurate' in detecting a fetus's sex at five weeks and offered refunds to anyone who received wrong results. The company was forced into bankruptcy in 2009 after hundreds of women with false results filed class action lawsuits after they said they weren't given any refunds." The researchers who published this study said the Acu-Gen test detected the "Y chromosome only 41 percent of the time." 

In a commentary for MSNBC (8/9), University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics director Arthur Caplan wrote that outside of testing for sex-linked genetic diseases, "everything about the early testing of fetal genes for sex identification spells ethical trouble." Caplan predicted these tests will soon be used for gender-selective abortion, paternity testing, and whether "your 7-week-old fetus is prone to early onset breast, colon or ovarian cancer, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, dwarfism, deafness, Alzheimer's." Caplan argued this test "promises to soon be a very morally contentious technology." 

MedPage Today (8/9, Fiore) reported, "In a review and meta-analysis, detection of Y-chromosome sequences had a sensitivity of about 95% and a specificity of nearly 99%, Stephanie Devaney, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues reported." Researchers stated "that a disadvantage of fetal DNA blood testing is the need to validate female sex, because the test looks for male, or Y-chromosome, DNA." MedPage Today also noted that the National Human Genome Research Institute funded the study.


Category: Pathology News

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