FRIDAY, June 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Noninvasive genetic testing of fetuses may also detect early stage cancers in their mothers, a new study says.
The testing -- normally used to determine whether a fetus has chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome -- involves analysis of DNA from the fetus that's found in the mother's blood.
A team of Belgian researchers set out to improve the accuracy of noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) so it could detect a larger number of chromosomal abnormalities in fetuses.
While testing the improved version, the investigators found genetic abnormalities in three women. The researchers couldn't link these abnormalities to the genetic profiles of either the mothers or their fetuses.
The scientists realized that the genetic abnormalities resembled those found in cancer and referred the women to cancer doctors. The women were found to have three different types of early stage cancer: ovarian, follicular lymphoma and Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Without the prenatal testing, it's likely the cancers would not have been detected until they were at a much later stage, according to the authors of the study.
Two of the three women were treated. The cancer in the third woman was slow-growing and didn't need treatment at that stage.
Findings from the study are scheduled to be presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Genetics in Glasgow, Scotland, and published simultaneously in the journal JAMA Oncology.
"Considering the bad prognosis of some cancers when detected later, and given that we know that it is both possible and safe to treat the disease during pregnancy, this is an important added advantage of NIPT," said principal investigator Joris Vermeesch in a society news release. He is head of the Laboratory for Cytogenetics and Genome Research at Leuven University in Belgium.
During pregnancy, some cancer symptoms might go unnoticed because they're similar to problems normally experienced in pregnancy, Vermeesch said. For example, fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain and vaginal blood loss can be normal in pregnancy, but can also be signs of cancer.
"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," Vermeesch said.
These findings suggest this type of genetic testing might be used more widely, not just for pregnant women, as a diagnostic tool in the future. Researchers said larger-scale studies will be required to validate these results further.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology has more about cancer during pregnancy.