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£1,800 blood test that allows couples to screen for inherited diseases goes on sale, but sparks 'designer baby' fears

By Victoria O'Hara

A new blood test that allows couples to be genetically screened for incurable inherited diseases before they start a family is to go on sale in Northern Ireland within weeks.

The genetic test, costing £900 per person and £1,800 for each couple, checks for faulty DNA and allows potential parents to discover whether their genes put them at risk of having a child with a disability.

It screens for almost 600 conditions, including some that kill within the first years of a child's life.

This includes a variety of conditions, such as cystic fibrosis as well as rarer conditions that cause blindness.

The CGT test, while aiming to provide a peace of mind to couples, has sparked criticism that the process promotes the idea that the only acceptable child is one without disabilities.

The NHS currently does pre-pregnancy testing but focuses on people with a family history of just a few conditions. Cystic fibrosis, which is life-limiting, can already be screened for but this new test allows for a wide-ranging assessment of adults, including those who may not have a family history.

Among the other most common disorders detected with the CGT test are Spinal Muscular atrophy and sickle-cell anemia.

But other conditions such as autism, Alzheimer's Disease and diabetes cannot be detected in the new blood test.

The test screen results are provided in 30 days.

According to Northern Ireland company Randox - which created the test in partnership with Spanish firm iGenomix - if couples are told they are at risk of having a child with an inherited disease, they can decide whether to adopt, have IVF treatment or go ahead and get pregnant naturally.

Counselling and support services for couples is available before and after they receive the results. As many as one in 25 people are carriers of a recessive genetic disorder, but because a carrier's health is not affected, many have no idea they can pass a disorder on.

And if both parents are carriers of the same faulty genes, it can result in their children being born with serious genetic conditions. The blood test will be available from May.

Dr Peter FitzGerald, managing director of Randox Health, said: "Our wide-ranging new screen will detect potential problems before pregnancy, by obtaining information from both parents through scoping 549 genes.

"A working party of the Royal College of Physicians has estimated that 2-3% of births result in babies with either congenital or genetically determined abnormalities, but with this test, we can alert prospective parents to the risk of serious genetic conditions such as Autosomal Recessive Polycystic Kidneys and Fragile X syndrome (which results in behavioural and developmental problems)."

Dr FitzGerald described it as "a big step forward for fertility health in the UK".

However, it has sparked concerns amongst some groups, including the Christian Medical Fellowship in the UK, that it could create the "over-medicalisation of pregnancy". Others have also voiced concerns that people will be stigmatised simply for carrying 'wrong genes'.

Christina Iranzo, director of iGenomix, said the main reason for the test is to reduce the risk of couples having a child with genetic problems.

"The objective of our work with Randox Health is to significantly reduce the risk of couples in the UK having a child with any type of genetic disease," she said.

Factfile

The CGT blood test, costing £1,800 per couple, is aimed at detecting genetic flaws they could pass on to a baby.

It was developed by Spanish firm iGenomix and will be available at Randox clinics in Northern Ireland and London.

The blood test is aimed at people who are carriers of disease genes, meaning they will not have symptoms themselves and may possibly be unaware of a problem with their DNA.

The service is available from May.

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