Speed Reads

the future

There's a new DNA test for babies that can check for 193 genetic diseases

Forget counting fingers and toes — new parents may soon be able to analyze their baby's genes.

MIT Technology Review reported Wednesday that the health information company Sema4 has developed a DNA test that screens babies for almost 200 genetic diseases. The test, which costs $649, is intended to expand on existing screeners recommended by the U.S. government, which only flag roughly 30 genetic disorders. With the ability to identify a greater number of abnormalities in their baby's first days — including ones that otherwise may not yield accurate diagnoses for years — parents can "get a better understanding of the health of your child," said Eric Schadt, the CEO of Sema4.

The test uses saliva procured from a baby's cheek to screen for problematic genetic alterations, as well as potential reactions to a range of medications usually given to young children, the Review says. Sema4's test has not yet been approved for coverage by insurance companies, which means dutiful parents will have to pick up the tab on their own for the time being.

The potential for expanded health knowledge isn't without its consequences. Some of the genetic abnormalities Sema4 is designed to detect may not cause symptoms for years, the Review notes, and "sometimes a child can carry a mutation but never develop the corresponding disease" at all. That means that overanxious parents may subject their children to expensive or intrusive medical procedures based on Sema4's results that may not actually be necessary. Laura Hercher, a genetics professor at Sarah Lawrence College, cautioned: "For many families, this is the kind of thing that can open up a can of worms where it doesn't end up necessarily benefiting the parent or child."