Screening of Maternal Serum for Fetal Down's Syndrome in the First Trimester

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Screening of maternal serum to identify fetuses with Down's syndrome is now routinely offered during the second trimester of pregnancy. Prenatal screening by means of serum assays or ultrasonographic measurements, either alone or in combination, may also be possible in the first trimester.


We measured serum alpha-fetoprotein, unconjugated estriol, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), the free beta subunit of hCG, and pregnancy-associated protein A in 4412 women (82 percent of whom were 35 years of age or older) who came to 16 prenatal diagnostic centers for chorionic-villus sampling or early amniocentesis at 9 to 15 weeks of gestation. Ultrasound measurements of fetal nuchal translucency were also reported. Fetal chromosomal analysis was performed in all pregnancies. Altogether, there were 61 fetuses with Down's syndrome.


A total of 48 pregnancies affected by Down's syndrome and 3169 unaffected pregnancies were identified before 14 weeks of gestation; the rates of detection of Down's syndrome for the five serum markers were as follows: 17 percent for alpha-fetoprotein, 4 percent for unconjugated estriol, 29 percent for hCG, 25 percent for the free beta subunit of hCG, and 42 percent for pregnancy-associated protein A, at false positive rates of 5 percent. The results of the measurements of serum hCG and its free beta subunit were highly correlated. When used in combination with the serum concentration of pregnancy-associated protein A and maternal age, the detection rate was 63 percent for hCG (95 percent confidence interval, 47 to 76 percent) and 60 percent for its free beta subunit (95 percent confidence interval, 45 to 74 percent). Measurements of nuchal translucency varied considerably between centers and could not be reliably incorporated into our calculations.


Screening for Down's syndrome in the first trimester is feasible, with use of measurements of pregnancy-associated protein A and either hCG or its free beta subunit in maternal serum. (N Engl J Med 1998;338:955-61.)

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