RARE Daily

Study Finds Rare Disease Experts Support DNA Sequencing in Newborns

May 9, 2023

Rare Daily Staff

Routine newborn screening will test infants for up to 60 treatable diseases, but even though treatments now exist for hundreds of genetic disorders, the use of genomic screening at birth remains controversial.

Now, a new study published in JAMA Network Open finds that 88 percent of rare disease experts say that DNA sequencing to screen for treatable childhood disorders should be made available to all newborns.

The study identified 432 gene-disease pairs that are not currently screened for, but that were recommended for newborn screening by more than half of the experts.

“Early identification of infants who are at risk for genetic disorders can be lifesaving and screening has the potential to improve healthcare disparities for affected children,” said lead author Nina Gold, a medical geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. “Medical experts are now calling for more conditions to be included in newborn screening that can only be identified through DNA sequencing. In our survey, they reached a striking consensus about the highest priority conditions to include.”

The survey study was conducted between February and September of 2022, and the research team received responses from 238 experts. In addition to soliciting expert consensus, the authors consolidated recommendations for more than 600 genetic conditions from rare disease sub-specialists in order to offer clinical guidance when DNA screening was positive.

In many cases in which DNA sequencing identifies a child at risk, a blood test or imaging study can then determine whether the disease condition is already underway, enabling early treatment. In other cases, the child will be entirely healthy despite the positive DNA screen and can be followed for the appearance of symptoms and signs in the future. The researchers caution that future studies will be needed to determine whether newborn sequencing is cost-effective and positively contributes to short- and long-term outcomes.

Over the past seven years, randomized controlled trials in the NIH/NCATS-funded BabySeq Project, conducted by researchers at Mass General Brigham and Boston Children’s Hospital, have demonstrated that comprehensive DNA sequencing of newborns can identify life-threatening genetic risks, many of which are treatable, in some babies shortly after birth.

Gene therapy for treating some of these conditions, including hemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, are currently in development or entering clinical trials. Mass General Brigham recently launched its Gene and Cell Therapy Institute to help translate scientific discoveries into first-in-human clinical trials and, ultimately, life-changing treatments for patients.

“It has been a longstanding dream to someday offer DNA sequencing to all newborns in order to detect their risk of disease,” said senior author Robert Green, a physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and lead investigator of the BabySeq Project. “Our empirical data from BabySeq have demonstrated that nearly 10 percent of infants carry actionable genetic variants. With the recent explosion of gene and cell therapies, some of which can fully prevent or cure a condition before symptoms appear, it is urgent that we move forward to provide this option to families who are interested.”

Photo: Nina Gold, a medical geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children

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