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Scientists Have Developed a New Blood Test to Predict Environmental Harms to Children

A new test is being used to determine and predict problems with a fetus before it is born.

April 19, 2021
Macie Gelb

Scientists have found, created, and developed a new method to screen pregnant women for harmful prenatal environmental contaminants like air pollution using a DNA biomarker. These harmful prenatal environmental contaminants are linked to childhood illness and some developmental disorders. This new test and approach could help to prevent childhood developmental disorders and chronic illness by identifying possible risk factors for children before they are born. 





A prenatal blood test could help parents and doctors find and mitigate risk factors for children. 

The Science 

Environmental contaminants, most commonly, air pollutants, have been associated with DNA markers for a while now, but it is a more recent and exciting development to see the link between prenatal exposure to environmental contaminants and the resulting detrimental outcomes in children. 


There is plenty of scientific evidence in existence that has linked adverse prenatal environmental exposures to detrimental outcomes in children. However, so far, there are no early warning systems to predict which children are at which levels of risk for which poor health outcomes. In a study performed by scientists at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the researchers took big steps towards getting over this barrier by finding an accessible biomarker that could be identified and measured in a small blood sample to identify newborns who are at an elevated risk to poor health conditions brought on by prenatal parental exposure to environmental contaminants. This study focused on air pollutants, but the scientists behind the study believe that their methods and procedures could be applied to identifying and measuring other environmental exposures. They hope to eventually make their test into a routine test for expecting parents.  



The researchers tested umbilical cord blood to identify and detect adverse effects of environmental contaminants in infants. 

The Experimentation

The researchers involved in the study used a machine learning analysis of umbilical cord blood. The blood was collected from two New York City-based longitudinal birth cohort studies in order to find locations on the DNA that had been altered by air pollution. This was a key finding, because DNA has the ability to be changed through a process called methylation, which can result in the modification of gene expression, which can, for example, make an impact on the level of proteins in a fetus’ system that are important for childhood development. So, if DNA can be altered by air pollution, and umbilical cord blood can show the effects of this alteration, that means it could very likely be affecting the babies. 

The scientists tested the biomarkers that they found in the blood, and they discovered that the biomarkers could be used to predict prenatal exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and specific measures of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which were monitored throughout the study participants’ pregnancy, however, it is important to note that the monitoring brough modestly accurate conclusions. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, (PAH) which was only monitored in the participants for a brief time during the third trimester of pregnancy was less well predicted than the NO2 and PM2.5. 


Going forward, the scientists intend to use their biomarker discovery process with a larger pool of data collected through the ECHO consortium, a program run through the National Health Institute (NIH) that looks at environmental contaminants and their effects on children. This development could potentially lead to higher and more accurate levels of predictability. It might also become possible, with this experiment, to link the biomarkers with both exposures and adverse health outcomes. With better predictability and lower cost, the method could become a routine test used in hospitals and clinics.


"Using a small sample of cord blood, it may be possible to infer prenatal environmental exposure levels in women where exposures were not explicitly measured," senior author Julie Herbstman, PhD, director of Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) and associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences said on the research. "While further validation is needed, this approach may help identify newborns at heightened risk for health problems. With this information, clinicians could increase monitoring for high-risk children to see if problems develop and prescribe interventions, as needed." 


This is exciting because it provides a window into which modern medicine can face afflictions and problems that previously would have been incurable. 


It is approximated that 15 percent of children in the United States ranging from ages 3 to 17 are affected by neurodevelopmental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, intellectual disability, autism and other developmental delays. There is also a high prevalence of childhood asthma in the US, at 8 percent of the population. 


The group with highest childhood asthma rates are African-American boys. These afflictions and more are known or suspected to be contributed to by environmental exposures. There are multiple childhood disorders that are by nature preventable once identified as harmful. Prenatal air pollution exposure has been associated with adverse neurodevelopmental and respiratory outcomes, as well as obesity.


This new test will allow doctors and expecting parents to have a fuller picture on the health of their fetus and eventual newborn. This science will also help doctors to intervene with and mitigate harm to babies while in utero. This will help the doctors and parents to ensure the children are growing up with as few complications as possible, and ensures that they will at least be aware of any challenges early on.


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