Safer, non-invasive prenatal tests for expectant mums

A*Star researchers (from left) Liu Yunxiao, Karen Wang, Chiam Su Yin and the lead researcher, Dr Chang, with the prenatal diagnostic technology which they developed. The new technique poses less risk and can potentially be used earlier during pregnancy th
A*Star researchers (from left) Liu Yunxiao, Karen Wang, Chiam Su Yin and the lead researcher, Dr Chang, with the prenatal diagnostic technology which they developed. The new technique poses less risk and can potentially be used earlier during pregnancy than current methods. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

A*Star is driving innovation in biotechnology. Carolyn Khew takes a look at some of the projects that have come to fruition.

Instead of having to resort to invasive procedures, doctors could soon search for foetal abnormalities with a blood test.

Expectant mothers whose prenatal screenings show signs that something could be wrong with their baby are often encouraged to go for further tests.

These procedures, however, are often invasive and run small risks, including miscarriage, infection or injury to the mother or unborn child.

But a team of scientists from the Institute of Microelectronics at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has developed technology which could change all that.

Working with a local molecular diagnostic company, INEX Innovations Exchange, A*Star scientists have developed a microchip which can separate foetal red blood cells from a mother's blood sample.

The microchip contains a filter membrane that allows the mother's red blood cells and platelets to pass through, while trapping the elusive foetal red blood cells. The latter can then be analysed for genetic defects.


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Scientist Chang Chia-Pin, the project's principal investigator, said that the technology is risk-free - unlike current prenatal diagnostic methods such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling.

These involve taking samples from the fluid surrounding the baby or from the placenta.

Dr Chang added that the technology can potentially be used during the eighth week of pregnancy - the earliest among current prenatal diagnostic techniques.

However, while the company's efforts have helped to overcome the challenge of isolating rare foetal cells, Dr Chang said that a bigger sample volume might be required when conducting tests.

"Foetal cells are rare and fragile; it is not easy to find and identify these cells in the maternal blood," added Dr Chang, noting that there is less than one foetal cell in a millilitre of blood.

There are some five billion red blood cells in 1ml.

The technology is undergoing a pre-clinical study which is expected to conclude in June this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2016, with the headline 'Safer, non-invasive prenatal tests for expectant mums'. Print Edition | Subscribe