A new blood test is transforming prenatal care for young women, physicians say

A new blood test used during OB-GYN visits may detect a baby's risk of Down syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities as early as 10 weeks, according to The Washington Post.

The test, called a "cell-free DNA" screen, analyzes the fetal genetic information that travels from the mother's placenta. The test does not pose a risk to the baby. Physicians have been regularly prescribing it for her patients who were older and higher risk.

Now, they are also prescribing it to younger women since women under 35 had more babies overall and make up 80 percent of the nation's 6,000 Down births a year, according to the CDC.

Physicians also say the test is more accurate than the current standard of care for younger women.

A new wave of younger women is accessing the test, which is marketed as the "noninvasive prenatal test," or NIPT. It became available in 2011 and OB-GYNs quickly embraced it because it was less risky than two other tests (amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling) and more sensitive in picking up genetic abnormalities. It also could be performed earlier in pregnancy than amniocentesis.

In an article last summer in the New England Journal of Medicine, Diana Bianchi, MD, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said cell-free DNA testing has led to a "global transformation of prenatal care."

The test not only spared women unneeded stress from fewer falsely abnormal results than current methods, but the increased use of the NIPT resulted in fewer invasive amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling procedures that have a slight risk of miscarriage, Dr. Bianchi wrote.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is reviewing its position on the NIPT, said Chris Zahn, MD, the college's vice president for practice activities.

"There's new evidence every day about how this technology is expanding to detect abnormalities earlier," Dr. Zahn said. "But from a clinical perspective, we still need to figure out how to counsel women to think about the results."

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