Researchers in Adelaide are working on a way to test for a wide range of foetal genetic abnormalities in early pregnancy.

A team from the University of South Australia has isolated foetal cells from maternal blood using a tiny microfluidic device – a lab-on-a-chip, non-invasive technology.

Lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technology integrates laboratory functions on a chip ranging from a few millimetres to a few square centimetres.

The special design of the device allows large volumes of blood to be screened, paving the way for an efficient, cheap and quick method of separating foetal cells from maternal blood cells.

Currently, prenatal diagnostic tests involve an amniocentesis procedure or taking a sample of cells from the placenta (chorionic villus sampling), both of which carry a risk of inducing miscarriage.

“From about five weeks into the pregnancy, foetal cells originating from the placenta can be found in a mother’s bloodstream,” says biomedical engineer Dr Marnie Winter.

“Using modern microfluidic technology, we can now isolate these extremely rare cells (about one in a million) from the mother’s white blood cells and collect them for genetic analysis.”

The device was adapted from one initially developed to isolate tumour cells from the blood of cancer patients.

“Many pregnant women would be aware of the new tests based on circulating foetal DNA that – with a simple blood test – help determine the risk of having a baby with Down syndrome,” Dr Winter said.

“These tests have revolutionised prenatal care, but they can only detect a small subset of genetic conditions and are not always accurate. We hope this LOC technology will be able to reliably detect a greater range of genetic abnormalities, providing more information to families and healthcare providers.”

The research team is now collaborating with industry partners to translate the technology for clinical prenatal diagnostics.

Details of the project are available here.