The days of pregnant women having a 3-inch-long (8-centimetre-long) hollow needle jabbed into their abdomens may be numbered.
For the second time in a month, scientists have announced that a simple blood test, rather than more invasive tests such as amniocentesis, can determine a fetus's genetic make-up, identifying mutations causing any of about 3,000 inherited disorders that arise from a glitch in a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis.
"We're really on the verge of an enormous increase in our ability to understand what an infant will be like," said Dr Michael Katz, a senior adviser to the March of Dimes, a foundation that supports research on pregnancy and birth defects. Katz was not involved in the study. "You'll be able to detect any kind of abnormality early, quickly, without distress and safely. This is the way of the future."
Determining a fetus's genome might give women more reasons to end a pregnancy. But it would also let physicians identify conditions that can be treated before birth or immediately after, said Stephen Quake of Stanford University in California, who led the new study: "The way it's done now, parents wait until a newborn gets sick and suffers in the first weeks of life, and only then does the doctor start figuring out the baby has a metabolic or immune disorder."
With prenatal genetic testing, in contrast, the parents would know by the end of the first trimester (12 to 13 weeks) if the fetus has a genetic or chromosomal defect. That way, they can be ready if the baby has special needs, which can be as simple as a certain diet.
Knowing so early that something has gone wrong might also allow physicians to treat a fetus. Prenatal surgery, introduced 30 years ago, is currently performed at a few specialized hospitals to correct just a few heart, bladder or other defects.
"Now we can challenge our colleagues in surgery and pharmacology," said Quake. "We'll soon be able to diagnose all these genetic disorders; what are you going to do about them?"