First trimester serum tests for Down's syndrome screening

Alldred, S. Kate, Takwoingi, Yemisi, Guo, Boliang, Pennant, Mary, Deeks, Jonathan J., Neilson, James P. and Alfirevic, Zarko (2015) First trimester serum tests for Down's syndrome screening. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 11 . CD011975/1-CD011975/238. ISSN 1469-493X

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Down's syndrome occurs when a person has three, rather than two copies of chromosome 21; or the specific area of chromosome 21 implicated in causing Down's syndrome. It is the commonest congenital cause of mental disability and also leads to numerous metabolic and structural problems. It can be life-threatening, or lead to considerable ill health, although some individuals have only mild problems and can lead relatively normal lives. Having a baby with Down’s syndrome is likely to have a significant impact on family life.

Noninvasive screening based on biochemical analysis of maternal serum or urine, or fetal ultrasound measurements, allows estimates of the risk of a pregnancy being affected and provides information to guide decisions about definitive testing. However, no test can predict the severity of problems a person with Down’s syndrome will have.


The aim of this review was to estimate and compare the accuracy of first trimester serum markers for the detection of Down’s syndrome in the antenatal period, both as individual markers and as combinations of markers. Accuracy is described by the proportion of fetuses with Down’s syndrome detected by screening before birth (sensitivity or detection rate) and the proportion of women with a low risk (normal) screening test result who subsequently had a baby unaffected by Down's syndrome (specificity).

Search methods

We conducted a sensitive and comprehensive literature search of MEDLINE (1980 to 25 August 2011), Embase (1980 to 25 August 2011), BIOSIS via EDINA (1985 to 25 August 2011), CINAHL via OVID (1982 to 25 August 2011), The Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness (The Cochrane Library 25 August 2011), MEDION (25 August 2011), The Database of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses in Laboratory Medicine (25 August 2011), The National Research Register (Archived 2007), Health Services Research Projects in Progress database (25 August 2011). We did forward citation searching ISI citation indices, Google Scholar and PubMed ‘related articles’. We did not apply a diagnostic test search filter. We also searched reference lists and published review articles.

Selection criteria

We included studies in which all women from a given population had one or more index test(s) compared to a reference standard (either chromosomal verification or macroscopic postnatal inspection). Both consecutive series and diagnostic case-control study designs were included. Randomised trials where individuals were randomised to different screening strategies and all verified using a reference standard were also eligible for inclusion. Studies in which test strategies were compared head-to-head either in the same women, or between randomised groups were identified for inclusion in separate comparisons of test strategies. We excluded studies if they included less than five Down's syndrome cases, or more than 20% of participants were not followed up.

Data collection and analysis

We extracted data as test positive or test negative results for Down's and non-Down's pregnancies allowing estimation of detection rates (sensitivity) and false positive rates (1-specificity). We performed quality assessment according to QUADAS (Quality Assessment of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies) criteria. We used hierarchical summary ROC meta-analytical methods or random-effects logistic regression methods to analyse test performance and compare test accuracy as appropriate. Analyses of studies allowing direct and indirect comparisons between tests were undertaken.

Main results

We included 56 studies (reported in 68 publications) involving 204,759 pregnancies (including 2113 with Down's syndrome). Studies were generally of good quality, although differential verification was common with invasive testing of only high-risk pregnancies. We evaluated 78 test combinations formed from combinations of 18 different tests, with or without maternal age; ADAM12 (a disintegrin and metalloprotease), AFP (alpha-fetoprotein), inhibin, PAPP-A (pregnancy-associated plasma protein A, ITA (invasive trophoblast antigen), free βhCG (beta human chorionic gonadotrophin), PlGF (placental growth factor), SP1 (Schwangerschafts protein 1), total hCG, progesterone, uE3 (unconjugated oestriol), GHBP (growth hormone binding protein), PGH (placental growth hormone), hyperglycosylated hCG, ProMBP (proform of eosinophil major basic protein), hPL (human placental lactogen), (free αhCG, and free ßhCG to AFP ratio. Direct comparisons between two or more tests were made in 27 studies.

Meta-analysis of the nine best performing or frequently evaluated test combinations showed that a test strategy involving maternal age and a double marker combination of PAPP-A and free ßhCG significantly outperformed the individual markers (with or without maternal age) detecting about seven out of every 10 Down's syndrome pregnancies at a 5% false positive rate (FPR). Limited evidence suggested that marker combinations involving PAPP-A may be more sensitive than those without PAPP-A.

Authors' conclusions

Tests involving two markers in combination with maternal age, specifically PAPP-A, free βhCG and maternal age are significantly better than those involving single markers with and without age. They detect seven out of 10 Down's affected pregnancies for a fixed 5% FPR. The addition of further markers (triple tests) has not been shown to be statistically superior; the studies included are small with limited power to detect a difference.

The screening blood tests themselves have no adverse effects for the woman, over and above the risks of a routine blood test. However some women who have a ‘high risk’ screening test result, and are given amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS) have a risk of miscarrying a baby unaffected by Down’s. Parents will need to weigh up this risk when deciding whether or not to have an amniocentesis or CVS following a ‘high risk’ screening test result.

Item Type: Article
Schools/Departments: University of Nottingham, UK > Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences > School of Medicine
Identification Number:
Depositing User: Guo, Dr Boliang
Date Deposited: 03 Feb 2016 13:12
Last Modified: 04 May 2020 20:10

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