Safer test for Down's on way

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ONE OF the "holy grails of medicine" - a non-invasive blood test for abnormalities in an unborn child that does not carry the risk of miscarriage - is close to being discovered, scientists said yesterday.

Currently the only way to detect chromosome and genetic abnormalities like Down's syndrome is to perform procedures such as amniocentesis, which involves placing a needle in the womb and carries a miscarriage risk of up to 2 per cent. Many women refuse to have the test because of the risk.

The new research by Dr Irene Roberts and a team of scientists at Imperial College, London, involves isolating the cells in a woman's bloodstream that come from her unborn baby, and expanding their numbers sufficiently for tests to be performed. Dr Roberts told a London conference on pregnancy and childbirth: "Development of a non-invasive test for pre-natal diagnosis with equivalent accuracy to current invasive procedures but without any risk of foetal loss is one of the holy grails of foetal medicine ... These potentially exciting experiments are now under way."

A spokesman for the National Childbirth Trust said: "The prospect of this test ... is something we would welcome with open arms."