Scientists from a Singapore based research center, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A-STAR) Institute of Microelectronics (IME), have come up with a new non-invasive procedure for the detection and diagnosis of fetal genetic abnormalities. The researchers have developed a microchip that can detect genetic abnormalities at the beginning of pregnancy by filtering the fetal red blood cells collected from the expecting mother.
Using this microchip technique, the doctors can now spot fetal abnormalities as early as the 8th week of pregnancy, much earlier than the current procedure which can only be performed by the 11th week after conception.
While the earlier detection of genetic abnormalities is a significant advantage, the new method, at the same time, is a much safer alternative compared to the current techniques.
Now-a-days the most widely used procedures to diagnose prenatal abnormalities are amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling. Samples are taken from the mother’s placenta and the fluid surrounding the fetus to perform these tests. Being invasive procedures, there is always a certain amount of risk involved, which may lead to miscarriage, infection and injury to the mother or fetus. The microchip technique, on the other hand, is a completely non-invasive procedure, so the risk factor is at a minimum.
The mother’s bloodstream normally carries the fetal red blood cells, although in extremely small numbers. However, unlike the adult red blood cells, the fetal cells contain nucleus which makes them grow bigger in dimension. The system developed by the IME scientists is used to isolate those larger fetal cells from the mother’s blood samples.
The procedure can be carried out by drawing only a few millilitres of blood from an expecting mother. The microchip features a circular microfilter membrane that contains thousands of microslits. It allows the mother’s platelets and red blood cells to pass through, while catching the fetal red blood cells.
The fetal blood cells collected in the microfilter are then subjected to further tests. These cells are treated with dyes to differentiate and analyze them for possible genetic disorders. Besides effectively diagnosing prenatal genetic deficiencies, the scientists claim that the system could also be used to monitor the circulation of tumour cells in cancer patients.
The scientists aim to conduct further experiments for preclinical validation of this method until June 2016. By the time the validation gets completed, the team is expected to gain detailed insight on the number of genetic disorders that can be detected through this microchip technology.