The NIPT is a prenatal blood test that detects fetal chromosomal anomalies, such as Down syndrome.The test is ran on a small blood sample of a pregnant woman which also contains tiny bits of the baby's DNA.
Abnormal NIPT can point to cancer
In the past couple of years, eight pregnant women who underwent the NIPT were diagnosed with cancer. Their cancers were discovered by the centre for human genetics (CME) of the University Hospitals Leuven. At closer examination, the abnormal NIPT results did not indicate chromosomal abnormalities in the foetus, but rather cancer in the mother. After all, the DNA of many tumours also circulates in the blood.
Cancer screening in a general population
That gave researchers the idea to use the NIPT for cancer screening in a general, healthy population. In a large-scale study, led by professor Joris Vermeesch (CME), professor Frédéric Amant and doctor Liesbeth Lenaerts from the Gynaecological Unit, blood samples were collected of 1,002 patients over the age of 65. The researchers examined these samples for genetica material that could point to a developing tumour. .
The first results of the study have now been published in Annals of Oncology. “A small number of people were diagnosed with blood cancer”, explains doctor Lenaerts. “In five test persons we discovered Hodgkin's disease or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A sixth patient was diagnosed with a precursor stage that is associated with an increased risk of developing blood cancer. In 24 other test subjects, we found genetic defects in their blood, but no cancer. These people will be monitored to find out whether they'll develop cancer at a later stage.”
A number of small-scale studies in patients diagnosed with cancer before, have already shown that the NIPT can detect cancer. These new results indicate that NIPT can also be used as a screening instrument for supposedly healthy patients. Further research will have to show whether the test may be used on a large scale to screen healthy persons for blood cancers in an early stage, and also whether the test may be adapted to screen other types of cancer as well.