Fetal DNA in maternal plasma: emerging clinical applications

B Pertl, D W Bianchi
Obstetrics and Gynecology 2001, 98 (3): 483-90

OBJECTIVE: To review the potential clinical diagnostic applications of fetal DNA analysis in maternal plasma or serum for noninvasive prenatal diagnosis and screening.

DATA SOURCES: We conducted a MEDLINE search of articles published between January 1970 and March 2000 using the key terms "fetal DNA," "plasma," and "serum."

METHODS OF STUDY SELECTION: All 369 articles describing the detection of fetal DNA in maternal plasma were reviewed.

RESULTS: The diagnostic use of circulating fetal DNA in maternal plasma is currently limited to genes that are present in the fetus but not in the mother. From a clinical perspective, the most advanced application is for noninvasive detection of fetal rhesus D (Rh[D]) genotype. The results of studies performed by four different groups showed that prenatal diagnosis of fetal Rh(D) status by molecular analysis of maternal plasma or serum is routinely possible beginning in the second trimester. Noninvasive fetal genotyping should be useful for the treatment of sensitized Rh(D)-negative women whose partners are heterozygous for the Rh(D) gene because no further diagnostic or therapeutic procedures are necessary if the fetus is Rh(D) negative. Future clinical applications of fetal DNA may be in its use as a screening test for Down syndrome, preeclampsia, or preterm labor. However, these applications currently rely on the detection of Y chromosomal sequences and consequently are limited presently to male fetuses.

CONCLUSION: The recent discovery of high concentrations of fetal DNA in maternal plasma represents a promising noninvasive approach to prenatal diagnosis. Compared with the analysis of the cellular fraction of maternal blood, the analysis of fetal DNA extracted from maternal plasma has the advantage of being rapid, robust, and easy to perform. The fetal DNA detected is limited to the current pregnancy. However, universal fetal gene sequences must be identified that allow analysis of genetic material from both male and female fetuses. Study of fetal DNA in maternal plasma can improve our understanding of fetomaternal biology and physiology. The long-term effects of maternal exposure to relatively high amounts of foreign DNA are unknown but represent an exciting area for future inquiry.

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