Scientists have created a new blood test that can predict an unborn baby's risk of genetic disorders.
The test could come as a welcome replacement for uncomfortable and invasive proceedures such as amniocentisis, which carry the risk of miscarriage, saving the lives of hundreds of unborn babies each year.
Using a tiny sample of a mother's blood, researchers can piece together a baby's entire genetic code and search its DNA for conditions such as Down's syndrome and autism.
Currently, pregnant women thought to be at high risk of having a baby with a condition such as Down's syndrome have the choice of two procedures, amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling.
Both involve putting a needle into the womb and raise the risk of miscarriage.
The new test, which is published the journal Science Translational Medicine, works by separating the baby's DNA from the blood of the mother at 12 weeks.
The technique currently costs £125,000 per baby but the price is expected to drop dramatically over time.
Dr Lo, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: 'The power of this technology is that by using one test you can see the entire foetal genome.'
But he cautioned that parents might not want to know all the information available and said the test should only be given in conjunction with professional counselling.
Speaking in the Daily Telegraph, he said: 'I think the eventual utility of this technique will be to target a number of common genetic disorders that are prevalent in a particular population.'
However Dr Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK said: 'Clearly there are benefits in terms of specific tests that can be done in a safer way.
'But the danger is that the test will be used to predict the risk of a range of diseases and even personality and many of these predictions will be misleading.'
Dr Christine Patch, chairman of the British Society for Human Genetics, said: 'While this is a potentially interesting approach that may have benefit for some families with serious genetic disorders, there are many concerns.
'It is too early to apply the technology widely as we are not yet able to interpret many of the results accurately.'
Dr David King, of Human Genetics Alert, said: 'The danger of this new method is that it will encourage parental choosiness about minor imperfections, or even cosmetic features.'
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