Non-invasive prenatal test has promising future
Leading gynecologist Kim Chang-kyu is pursuing a dream that took root during his childhood, when he witnessed the struggles faced by his mentally disabled aunt and a family death related to pregnancy complications.
“My dream is to reduce congenital abnormalities in pregnancy," he said. "Within the next 5 years, I expect big changes for women in Korea.”
Kim says a new, non-invasive, DNA blood test is the key, but lack of education and money-hungry medical professionals stand in the way.
“Babies with Down syndrome have an extra copy of a specific chromosome. The blood test can identify this accurately,” he said.
“Women are marrying and starting families later in life, and the incidence of congenital birth defects such as Down syndrome has risen.”
Age and risk of Down syndrome
Invasive testing takes place in approximately 15 percent of pregnant women in Korea, some 70,000 women annually. Of those, 3 percent will suffer complications and miscarry.
Amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling are the most common choices of prenatal testing in Korea. Both involve having a needle inserted into the womb to draw off a sample of placenta cells or amniotic fluid.
In contrast, benefits of DNA blood testing include zero risk of miscarriage, and the ability to make informed decisions about pregnancy. The main drawback is accuracy, though experts say the rate of “false positives” is under 5 percent, meaning 5 percent of women would be told they are carrying a baby with Down syndrome when they are not. In this case, confirmative amniocentesis is conducted. The cost of the test is comparable to amniocentesis, but not covered by medical insurance.
“The method takes time to perfect and requires training,” he said, adding that induced abortion is legal in Korea if a congenital defect is discovered. Today, the test is used in the U.S.A., China, Korea, and Taiwan. Kim speculates that Europe, Malaysia, Singapore and India are likely to follow.
“If the test is popularized, we can develop patented technology in Korea, which would drastically reduce costs and allow more women to have access to it. At the moment, specimens must be sent to China for testing, so the cost includes dry ice and shipping fees.”
According to Kim, most women in Korea have no information about non-invasive testing. Currently, around 3,000 private clinics in Korea currently offer DNA testing, and the number is growing.
“Doctors are reluctant to push the technology as it may very well inspire a 98 percent decline in amniocentesis, which serves as a financial incentive for large hospitals, private clinics and laboratories. That’s something that many institutions aren't in a hurry to give up, though several leading university hospitals, as well as conglomerates such as Samsung are showing interest.”
Kim serves as board member for the “International Society of The fetus as a patient,” a global coalition of medical professionals who work as a team for the benefit of 'the unborn.
For more information about non-invasive prenatal tests, visit www.yunlee.co.kr.
The writer is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.