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New blood tests could radically change prenatal examinations

If you're expecting a child, you might have had friends or coworkers ask if you're getting the early blood test to find out gender. What are they talking about? It's a relatively new industry that's exploded in the last year, expected to be worth about $3.5 billion in the next 4 years.

These non-invasive blood tests could radically change prenatal testing for everyone. But not just yet. And not without some concern.

Well before they're born, parents-to-be worry and wonder if their child will be healthy. As word of mouth spreads, more patients at the Perinatal Center of Oklahoma are requesting a cell-free DNA test. Done as early as 9 or 10 weeks into a pregnancy, it looks at small amounts of actual fetal DNA in mom's blood.

"It's a non-invasive screening test that can detect certain genetic disorders in certain high-risk populations," said Dr. Charles Mirabile, a maternal fetal medicine specialist.

The 4 companies agressively fighting for their slice in the game are Panorama, MaterniT21, Harmony, and Verifi.

All of them boast the ability to detect certain genetic disorders, like Down's syndrome, with extremely high accuracy. And the added bonus of some tests is finding out the baby's gender early.

"The new test offers the advantage in this high-risk group of having the highest detection rate with the lowest false-positive, and that's what people are excited about," said Dr. Mirabile.

Right now the tests are just recommended to high-risk patients, including women 35 and older or when other tests or ultrasounds show cause for concern. But with more studies underway, the tests could become standard for all pregnant women as early as next year.

"It may very well happen," Dr. Mirabile said.

And that raises some issues. Dr. Mirabile warns the tests will likely carry a higher false-positve rate in pregnancies that aren't high-risk. And some doctors might not know how to interpret the results correctly, leaving patients with more questions and uncertainty. Some argue the tests will encourage more abortions of babies with Down's syndrome.

Dr. Mirabile said, "It's still really important people undergo genetic counseling, preferable pre-test genetic counseling, so they can understand what all the testing alternatives are and what the test means."

The new tests don't replace amnio-centisis or CVS, which carry a risk of miscarriage, but they do offer new options to parents to be and the chance to learn earlier than ever about their baby's health.

"It's so they have the opportunity to make decisions about their pregnancy, but to also be prepared," said Dr. Mirabile.

There are lots of prenatal tests available, regardless of whether or not you are considered high-risk, so educate yourself on the options and talk with your doctor. Right now insurance will usually pay for cell-free DNA tests for high-risk patients. Without insurance, you're looking at a price tag of $750 to $2000.

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