More on noninvasive prenatal testing for fetal aneuploidy

We have written about nonivasive prenatal testing (NIPT) on this blog several times.  Because they are so new, the landscape around these tests is continually evolving.  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) published guidelines on these tests in December of last year.  Just this week, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) released its policy statement on the same topic.  Note that the ACMG refers to these tests as "noninvasive prenatal screening" (NIPS) tests to emphasize that this is what they are: screening, not diagnostic tests.

The ACMG calls for caution before these tests become widely integrated into prenatal care due to the current lack of data obtained from prospective clinical trials.  While they acknowledge that NIPS tests have high sensitivity and specificity there are limitations to the technology and false-positive and false-negative results do occur.

A particular concern, and one that doesn't get as much attention as it should, is that most of the fetal DNA in the mother's blood sample originates from the placenta and not the fetus and it may not accurately reflect the fetal karyotype.  They emphasize (as have others), that abnormal NIPS test results must be confirmed by invasive diagnostic tests such as amniocentesis.

The policy statement also lists several limitations to NIPS tests.  Among them:

  • They only detect aneuploidies (and some detect sex chromosome abnormalities).
  • Certain chromosome abnormalities are not detected.
  • The tests take longer to perform and result than more well-established tests.
  • Data on the performance of the tests in twin and triplet pregnancies is not well established.

A recent paper published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology has a similar ring to it.  The authors make several interesting observations:

  • First, they point out that well-established tests were developed in academic settings and came into use gradually and only after independent clinical studies generated data to support their use.  In contrast, NIPT (also developed in academic settings) was quickly licensed to commercial enterprises that have brought them to market without FDA review (as these are "lab-developed tests," FDA appoval is not required).
  • From the analytical perspective, there are currently no guidelines regarding quality control and quality assurance for NIPT; a vital component of any lab test.
  • The performance of NIPT in actual clinical practice settings (i.e. not a clinical study) is currently not well known or documented.  This is especially true for populations of women that have not been represented in the clinical studies (e.g. woman at low risk for having a fetus with an aneuploidy).
  • The more well-established tests are able to detect fetal anomalies besides aneuploidy (e.g. open neural tube defects).

The authors also reflect on how NIPT should be incorporated into clinical care.  They agree with the ACOG recommendations that the tests should not be offered to low-risk women but they go a bit further and state that the most appropriate use of NIPT is as a second screening test used for those who have an abnormal result from convential, more well-established screening tests.  The latter point is something I have commented on before and I could not be in more complete agreement.

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