New Fetus Testing Shows Promise, Raises Ethical Questions

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A new breakthrough by genome scientists at the University of Washington could be a boon to parents of unborn babies in less than five years.

Ultimately, this would allow doctors to test the fetus for up to 3,500 genetic disorders and possibly replace the more invasive amniocentesis that tests for abnormalities in the unborn.

The researchers came upon the new method by mapping the entire genome of a fetus, which involved taking blood samples of a woman who was 18 weeks pregnant and saliva from her partner to map the fetus’s DNA.

After repeating the process with another couple, the University of Washington scientists were able to reconstruct the fetus' genetic code with 98 percent accuracy.

Jacob Kitzman, lead author of the study, said the new procedure can diagnose spina bifida and Down syndrome, the most common genetic disorders in the U.S. It's also believed to be safer than amniocentesis, which carries a certain degree of risk to the life of the unborn.

At the moment, the test is too expensive for widespread use and there are also ethical questions to be considered.

On this issue, Marcy Darnovsky with the public interest group Center for Genetics and Society says, "Researchers and doctors and genetics counselors have an important role to play in how these tests are used and then as a broader society it's really important that we start thinking about these questions."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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