'Safer, more accurate' blood test for Down's syndrome likely to get go-ahead for use on NHS, ITV News understands

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Richard Pallot

A highly-accurate test for Down's syndrome is likely to be approved for use in hospitals across England after it was given the all-clear to be used for high-risk women on the NHS, ITV News understands.

Government advisers have recommend the simple blood test, which can be used to detect the condition, as well as Patau's and Edwards' syndromes.

The move would mean far fewer women will need to have invasive amniocentesis tests, which carry a 1% risk of miscarriage, as well as a 0.1% chance of serious infection.

ITV News understands Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health are looking at the test very seriously. It has to go through a formal process for approval by a committee at PHE but the expectation is that it is likely to get approval as it is seen within government as a very effective test.

  • What is changing?

Currently, all pregnant women in England are offered a combined blood and ultrasound test when they are 10 to 14 weeks pregnant.

Under the new recommendations, women found to have a one in 150 chance or greater of having a baby with Down's, patau's or Edwards' syndrome in the combined test should then be offered the new blood test, rather than amniocentesis.

The UK National Screening Committee's recommendations have yet to be given the final go-ahead by the government, but it is hoped the test could be rolled out soon.

  • What are the benefits of the new test?

Professor Basky Thilaganathan, a consultant obstetrician at St George's Hospital in south-west London, said the move marked a "sea change" in the way women at risk were treated, as it was safer and more accurate.

Studies for the new screening method - known as non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) - showed it was 99% accurate, and resulted in a greater number of patients taking the test.

St George's has been offering the tests to patients since June, with the results able to be turned around in five days.

  • Move welcomed, but questions remain

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We welcome these important recommendations from the UK National Screening Committee, which have the potential to transform antenatal, bowel and cervical screening. We are now considering the recommendations."

However, Dr Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England, said that a "number of questions about its use" that hadn't been answered by tests so far.

"We don't know how good the test is for other genetic conditions - Edwards' and Patau's syndromes - that are currently part of the programme, and the evidence review also found that up to 13% of the NIPTs carried out didn't give any result at all," she said.

"The intention, therefore, is to monitor and evaluate as we go. That means rolling out the test across England in such a way that allows us to learn from the experience and alter the screening programme if necessary in light of any real-life findings."