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Lancet. 1977 Jun 25;1(8026):1323-32.

Maternal serum-alpha-fetoprotein measurement in antenatal screening for anencephaly and spina bifida in early pregnancy. Report of U.K. collaborative study on alpha-fetoprotein in relation to neural-tube defects.


Nineteen centres collaborated in a study to determine the efficiency of maternal serum-alpha-fetoprotein (A.F.P.) measurement as a method of screening for neural-tube defects (N.T.D.S.) between 10 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. Data were collected on 18 684 singleton pregnancies and 163 twin pregnancies without fetal N.T.D.s, and on 301 singleton pregnancies with fetal N.T.D.s (146 with anencephaly, 142 with spina bifida, and 13 with encephalocele). The best time for detecting open spina bifida by measuring maternal serum-A.F.P. is at 16-18 weeks of pregnancy. In clinical practice, serum-A.F.P. cut-off levels expressed as multiples of the normal median may be more convenient to use than percentiles because they are easier to derive and more stable. Also, the proportion of affected pregnancies with serum-A.F.P. levels exceeding a given multiple of the median is unlikely to vary significantly from centre to centre or over time. In contrast, the proportion of unaffected pregnancies with A.F.P. levels exceeding a given multiple of the normal median will vary depending on the precision with which serum-A.F.P. and gestation are measured. At 16-18 weeks of pregnancy 88% of cases of anencephaly, 79% of cases of open spina bifida, and 3% of unaffected singleton pregnancies had A.F.P. levels equal to or greater than 2-5 times the median for unaffected singleton pregnancies. At this gestation age the numbers of unaffected pregnancies with A.F.P. levels above 2-5 times the normal median can be reduced by about a third if women with borderline A.F.P. levels are retested, although this would not greatly change the detection-rate of affected pregnancies. In the United Kingdom as a whole, women with serum-A.F.P. levels above 2-5 times the normal median at 16-18 weeks of gestation will have an approximately 1-in-20 chance of having a fetus with open spina bifida; the risk of having any N.T.D. will be approximately 1 in 10. The results of this study indicate that screening pregnant women by measuring the concentration of A.F.P. in their serum is an effective method of selecting women for ultrasonography and amniocentesis so that N.T.D.s can be diagnosed in utero.

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