Prenatal testing designed to detect Down's syndrome in developing fetuses can also detect if mothers are suffering from cancer, according to the results of a new study from Europe.

Expectant mothers routinely undergo Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) to test fetuses for a wide range of disorders, including Down's syndrome.

"Using the new, adapted test in over 6,000 pregnancies, and looking at other chromosomes, we identified three different genomic abnormalities in three women that could not be linked to either the maternal or fetal genomic profile," said Nathalie Brison of the Clinical Cytogenetics laboratory, managed by the Centre for Human Genetics.

Two of the three women in the study who were found to have cancer were sent for treatment, one during her pregnancy, while the third did not require medial care at the time of diagnosis. As soon as researchers found abnormalities in the test similar to those seen in cancer patients, the mothers-to-be were informed of the findings. The woman who was treated while still pregnant later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

The test could help find cancers long before women started to experience symptoms. As the trio of patients were being treated, NIPT was used to monitor their progress, showing the process could be used to monitor the progression of cancer treatments in pregnant patients.

"During pregnancy, cancer-related symptoms may well be masked; fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, and vaginal blood loss are easily interpretable as a normal part of being pregnant. NIPT offers an opportunity for the accurate screening of high risk women for cancer, allowing us to overcome the challenge of early diagnosis in pregnant women," said Joris Vermeesch, leader of the Laboratory for Cytogenetics and Genome Research at Leuven.

Finding three women, aged 20 to 40, with cancer in a group of 6,000 adult females, is well within the ratio considered normal, researchers report. Each had different forms of cancer — including follicular lymphoma, ovarian carcinoma and Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Down's syndrome is driven by the most common chromosomal abnormality, being found in one out of every 700 births. Older mothers, especially those over 36 years of age, are at a higher risk of giving birth to babies who will develop the syndrome.

Future research could examine how this test could impact the treatment of pregnant women with cancer.

A report on the discovery of how to detect cancers in expectant mothers through the use of a blood test designed to detect Down's syndrome was published in the journal JAMA Oncology.

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