The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


8788 John Pappajohn Pavilion
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 356-3945

Release: Nov. 17, 1999

UI physicians using new screening technique for birth defects

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Specialists in the University of Iowa department of obstetrics and gynecology are using a new technique that can less invasively detect possible birth defects as early in pregnancy as any other method.

The technique is called nuchal translucency. The process involves the use of an ultrasound examination to measure the thickness of the skin on the back of the neck of the fetus. Nuchal translucency can detect a range of possible birth defects, including Down syndrome and heart abnormalities, as early as 11 to 14 weeks into a pregnancy.

"The technique is very precise and sensitive," said Jerome Yankowitz, M.D., UI associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a perinatology specialist at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. "At that stage of pregnancy, the heart is about the size of a grain of rice."

Yankowitz traveled to London to learn the technique from the physician who perfected it, Kypros Nicolaides, M.D. Nicolaides studied nuchal translucency examinations in more than 150,000 pregnancies. His research shows that nuchal translucency can detect up to 80 percent of cases of Down syndrome and up to 60 percent of congenital heart defects.

Nuchal translucency screenings can be beneficial for all pregnant women, not just those who have a higher risk for delivering a child with birth defects, Yankowitz said. "The advantage of the technique is that we can safely screen the woman very early in her pregnancy, toward the tail end of the first trimester," Yankowitz said. "Then, we can tell the couple what their risk is for having a child with a birth defect and help them decide if they should go on to have additional testing such as an amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling. Those techniques are quite safe, but they are more invasive and they do pose more of a risk for a miscarriage."

If an abnormality is detected, couples may decide to either terminate or continue the pregnancy.

"This is not just about helping to decide to terminate the pregnancy," Yankowitz said. "Most couples are very glad just to know what to expect. If we know in advance that defects are likely, we

can prepare to have the child delivered here to ensure that the baby receives the specialized care he or she will require, and we can prepare the family to help meet the child's special needs, as well."

The National Institutes of Health is planning an $11.5 million research study of nuchal

translucency in the United States. Other medical centers in the U.S. are also now offering the technique.

"This technique has tremendous potential," Yankowitz said. "We believe that it will quickly become very accepted practice and that women will soon begin to demand it."

For additional information about nuchal translucency, contact Yankowitz at (319) 356-2574.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.