Issue date: 08 June 2001

Invasive methods for the pre-natal testing of babies, such as amniocentesis, carry their own risks. There are approximately 620,000 pregnancies each year in the UK, of which around 31,000 (5%) are subject to invasive procedures. At least 310 miscarriages result from these procedures.

Safer testing techniques for inherited conditions are now being developed by researchers at the University of the West of England. These techniques rely upon special DNA sequencing equipment, worth some £93,000, now available in the university's Faculty of Applied Sciences.

Instead of taking samples of fetal blood or amniotic fluid, a sample of blood from the pregnant mother is taken. The fetal DNA can then be identified in the maternal blood. It can then be analysed using the DNA sequencer, to detect conditions such as potentially fatal incompatibilities between mother's and baby's blood.

UWE's equipment is capable of the longest DNA sequencing runs known - over 1200 base pairs of DNA have been defined on one run of the machine. The purchase was made possible by a Joint Research Equipment Initiative grant, where UWE joined forces with an equipment manufacturer. Funds to buy the equipment were made up of a 50% grant from the prestigious Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, matched by UWE's research funds and a discount from the manufacturer, MWG Biotech. This is the first time UWE has benefited from a JREI award.

Dr Neil Avent, who is a world-class authority on the Rhesus (Rh) blood group system, worked with a team of seven colleagues on the grant. He has already received funds from the National Blood Authority (£113,000) and the NHS Research and Development Directorate (£127,000) for his research into non-invasive prenatal testing.

Dr Avent said: "We needed equipment as sophisticated as this to further our research. It will also be used to support research in the Faculty such as studies of leukaemia, and for teaching final year students on the new Forensic Science degree course. This machine is ideal for short tandem repeat analysis, which is the classic way of determining the DNA profile of an individual."

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