Fetal Cells in Maternal Blood

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Trisomy 21 karyotype cartoon

This current page is a general starting point for the topic of fetal cells and DNA in maternal blood as a new potential source for prenatal diagnosis. It turns out that the fetal cells in maternal blood are extremely difficult to isolate and analyse, so Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) of cffDNA is the more common method being employed.

As far back as 1997 fetal DNA was identified in maternal blood.[1] it has taken some time for technologies to develop to a point where now just the fetal genetic material can be analysed as a noninvasive prenatal test (NIPT).

The links below are to resources that give more specific information about some diagnostic techniques available at different stages of pregnancy. When abnormal development is identified this can be due to genetic, environmental, unknown causes or a combination of these effects. (More? Abnormal Development) These tests currently being developed allow detection of some genetic abnormalities. A trend in developed countries of an increasing maternal age, long associated with increased genetic abnormalities, has emphasised the need for good diagnostic low risk tests that allow informed decisions early in a pregnancy. (More? Genetic).

The topic of Preimplantation Genetic Screening (PGS) of blastocysts, associated with Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), is not discussed here.

This Embryology site is a developmental educational resource, it does not provide specific clinical details, you should always refer to a health professional.

Diagnosis Links: Prenatal Diagnosis | pregnancy test | amniocentesis | chorionic villus sampling | ultrasound | Alpha-Fetoprotein | Pregnancy-associated plasma protein-A | Fetal Blood Sampling | Magnetic Resonance Imaging | Computed Tomography | Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing | Fetal Cells in Maternal Blood | Preimplantation Genetic Screening | Comparative Genomic Hybridization | Genome Sequencing | Neonatal Diagnosis | Category:Prenatal Diagnosis | Fetal Surgery | Classification of Diseases | Category:Neonatal Diagnosis

| Assisted Reproductive Technology | In Vitro Fertilization | Journal - Prenatal diagnosis

Some Recent Findings

Fetal cells maternal blood graph
Fetal cells maternal blood graph[2]
  • Do fetal extravillous trophoblasts circulate in maternal blood postpartum?[3] "Circulating fetal extravillous trophoblasts may offer a superior alternative to cell-free fetal DNA for noninvasive prenatal testing. Cells of fetal origin are a pure source of fetal genome, hence, unlike cell-free noninvasive prenatal test, fetal cell-based noninvasive prenatal test is not expected to be affected by maternal DNA. However, circulating fetal cells from previous pregnancies may lead to confounding results. In order to study whether fetal trophoblast cells persist in maternal circulation postpartum, blood samples were collected from 11 women who had given birth to a boy, with blood sampling at 1-3 days (W0), 4-5 weeks (W4-5), around 8 weeks (W8), and around 12 weeks (W12) postpartum. The existence of fetal extravillous trophoblasts was verified either by X and Y chromosome fluorescence in-situ hybridization analysis, or by short tandem repeat analysis. In order to exclude technological bias in isolating fetal cells, blood samples were also collected from 10 pregnant women in gestational age of 10-14 weeks, the optimal time frame for cell-based noninvasive prenatal test sampling. All the samples were processed according to protocols established by ARCEDI Biotech (Vejle, Denmark) for fetal extravillous trophoblasts enrichment and isolation. Fetal extravillous trophoblasts were found in all the 10 samples from pregnant women in gestational age of 10-14 weeks. However, only four out of 11 blood samples taken from women, one to three days postpartum rendered fetal extravillous trophoblasts. And only two out of 11 samples rendered fetal extravillous trophoblasts at four weeks postpartum. In this preliminary dataset on few pregnancies, none of the samples rendered any fetal cells at or after eight weeks postpartum, showing that cell-based noninvasive prenatal testing based on fetal extravillous trophoblasts is unlikely to be influenced by circulating cells from previous pregnancies."
  • Fetal aneuploidy screening with cell-free DNA in late gestation[4] "The aim of this study was to evaluate clinical use of NIPT at gestational ages of 23 weeks and above. A cohort of 5579 clinical patients with singleton gestations of 23 weeks or greater submitting a blood sample for NIPT in an 18-month period were selected for this study. ...Of 5372 reported late-gestation samples, 151 (2.8%) were reported as aneuploidy detected or suspected. In late-gestation samples, the overall observed positive predictive value (PPV) for NIPT was 64.7%, with an observed PPV of 100% in the subset of cases with multiple clinical indications including abnormal ultrasound findings. NIPT is a highly accurate prenatal screening option for women after 23 weeks of gestation. Women who presented for NIPT in the latter stages of pregnancy more frequently specified clinical indications of abnormal ultrasound findings than women who entered screening earlier in pregnancy."
  • Fetal Sex Chromosome Testing by Maternal Plasma DNA Sequencing: Clinical Laboratory Experience and Biology[5] "Of 18,161 samples with sex chromosome results, no sex chromosome aneuploidy was detected in 98.9% and the fetal sex was reported as XY (9,236) or XX (8,721). In 4 of 32 cases in which the fetal sex was reportedly discordant between noninvasive prenatal testing and karyotype or ultrasonogram, a potential biological reason for the discordance exists, including two cases of documented co-twin demise, one case of a maternal kidney transplant from a male donor, and one case of fetal ambiguous genitalia. In the remaining 204 samples (1.1%), one of four sex chromosome aneuploidies (monosomy X, XXX, XXY, or XYY) was detected. The frequency of false positive results for sex chromosome aneuploidies is a minimum of 0.26% and a maximum of 1.05%. All but one of the discordant sex chromosome aneuploidy results involved the X chromosome. In two putative false-positive XXX cases, maternal XXX was confirmed by karyotype. For the false-positive cases, mean maternal age was significantly higher in monosomy X (P<.001) and lower in XXX (P=.008). Noninvasive prenatal testing results for sex chromosome aneuploidy can be confounded by maternal or fetal biological phenomena. When a discordant noninvasive prenatal testing result is encountered, resolution requires additional maternal history, detailed fetal ultrasonography, and determination of fetal and possibly maternal karyotypes."
  • Fetal gender and several cytokines are associated with the number of fetal cells in maternal blood - an observational study[2] "A total of 57 pregnant women at a gestational age of weeks 11-14 were included. The number of fetal cells in maternal blood was assessed in 30 ml of blood using specific markers for both enrichment and subsequent identification. Participants carrying male fetuses had a higher median number of fetal cells in maternal blood than those carrying female fetuses (5 vs. 3, p = 0.04). Certain cytokines (RANTES, IL-2 and IL-5) were significantly associated with the number of fetal cells in maternal blood."
More recent papers
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Older papers
These papers originally appeared in the Some Recent Findings table, but as that list grew in length have now been shuffled down to this collapsible table.

See also the Discussion Page for other references listed by year and References on this current page.

  • Noninvasive Prenatal Testing: The Future Is Now[6] "Prenatal detection of chromosome abnormalities has been offered for more than 40 years, first by amniocentesis in the early 1970s and additionally by chorionic villus sampling (CVS) in the early 1980s. ...The ability to isolate fetal cells and fetal DNA from maternal blood during pregnancy has opened up exciting opportunities for improved noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT). Direct analysis of fetal cells from maternal circulation has been challenging given the scarcity of fetal cells in maternal blood (1:10,000-1:1,000,000) and the focus has shifted to the analysis of cell-free fetal DNA, which is found at a concentration almost 25 times higher than that available from nucleated blood cells extracted from a similar volume of whole maternal blood. There have now been numerous reports on the use of cell-free DNA (cfDNA) for NIPT for chromosomal aneuploidies-especially trisomy (an extra copy of a chromosome) or monosomy (a missing chromosome)-and a number of commercial products are already being marketed for this indication. This article reviews the various techniques being used to analyze cell-free DNA in the maternal circulation for the prenatal detection of chromosome abnormalities and the evidence in support of each."
  • Noninvasive whole-genome sequencing of a human fetus[7] "Analysis of cell-free fetal DNA in maternal plasma holds promise for the development of noninvasive prenatal genetic diagnostics. Previous studies have been restricted to detection of fetal trisomies, to specific paternally inherited mutations, or to genotyping common polymorphisms using material obtained invasively, for example, through chorionic villus sampling. Here, we combine genome sequencing of two parents, genome-wide maternal haplotyping, and deep sequencing of maternal plasma DNA to noninvasively determine the genome sequence of a human fetus at 18.5 weeks of gestation. "
  • A noninvasive test to determine paternity in pregnancy[8] "Our approach shows that noninvasive prenatal paternity testing can be performed within the first trimester with the use of a maternal blood sample."


Microchimerism (Mc) is a term used to describe when a usually small population of foreign cells or DNA harboured by one individual that derive from a genetically distinct individual. May occur in pregnancy when cells exchange between the fetus and mother or mother and fetus. Microchimerism may also be seen in twinning and transplants. Maternally acquired cells in the fetus may also persist postnatally.[9]

Links: Twinning

Genetic Testing

There are clinically more and more tests becoming available as we learn more about the genetic basis of some diseases. The most common diagnostic test relates to the current trend in an increasing maternal age, which has long been associated with an increase in genetic abnormalities, the most frequent of these is trisomy 21 or Down syndrome.

Inheritance Genetics

Pedigree chart

Links: Genetic risk maternal age | Trisomy 21


A recent publication from NHMRC Medical Genetic Testing: information for health professionals (2010). This paper covers background information on all types of genetic tests, not just those associated with prenatal diagnosis.

Types of genetic tests

  • Somatic cell genetic testing involves testing tissue (usually cancer) for non-heritable mutations. This may be for diagnostic purposes, or to assist in selecting treatment for a known cancer.
  • Diagnostic testing for heritable mutations involves testing an affected person to identify the underlying mutation(s) responsible for the disease. This typically involves testing one or more genes for a heritable mutation.
  • Predictive testing for heritable mutations involves testing an unaffected person for a germline mutation identified in genetic relatives. The risk of disease will vary according to the gene, the mutation and the family history.
  • Carrier testing for heritable mutations involves testing for the presence of a mutation that does not place the person at increased risk of developing the disease, but does increase the risk of having an affected child developing the disease.
  • Pharmacogenetic testing for a genetic variant that alters the way a drug is metabolised. These variants can involve somatic cells or germline changes. Even if these variants are heritable (that is germline changes), the tests are usually of relevance to genetic relatives only if they are being treated with the same type of medication.

Links: NHMRC - Medical Genetic Testing: information for health professionals


A new site developed by NIH "GeneTests" provides medical genetics information resources available at no cost to all interested persons. It contains educational information, a directory of genetic testing laboratories and links to other databases such as OMIM.

Links: GeneTests | Medline Plus - Genetic Testing

Comparative Genomic Hybridization

This new test under development is based upon microarray-based comparative genomic hybridization (array CGH).

All fetal cells should have complete copies of maternal and paternal genomes. The test compares regions of fetal DNA that deviate from this "pattern" due to either too much or too little DNA, alterations reflect regions of the genome that are either copied or deleted. These genetic changes may therefore cause disease.

Links: Comparative Genomic Hybridization

Ethics of Testing

Major developmental abnormalities detected early enough can be resolved far more easily than those discovered late in a pregnancy.

What are the ethical questions that are raised by prenatal testing? Future individual rights or parents rights? But what about diseases, like Huntington's, where a diagnostic test can be made but there are no current treatments for the postnatal (95% of cases adult onset) disease?

Huntington's disease

Guidelines for the molecular genetics predictive test

Recommendation 2.1 "the test is available only to individuals who have reached the age of majority."
Recommendation 7.2 "the couple requesting antenatal testing must be clearly informed that if they intend to complete the pregnancy if the fetus is a carrier of the gene defect, there is no valid reason for performing the test."

(excerpt from: IHA and the World Federation of Neurology Research Group on Huntington's Chorea. Guidelines for the molecular genetics predictive test in Huntington's disease.)


  1. Lo YM, Corbetta N, Chamberlain PF, Rai V, Sargent IL, Redman CW & Wainscoat JS. (1997). Presence of fetal DNA in maternal plasma and serum. Lancet , 350, 485-7. PMID: 9274585 DOI.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Schlütter JM, Kirkegaard I, Petersen OB, Larsen N, Christensen B, Hougaard DM, Kølvraa S & Uldbjerg N. (2014). Fetal gender and several cytokines are associated with the number of fetal cells in maternal blood--an observational study. PLoS ONE , 9, e106934. PMID: 25188498 DOI.
  3. Van De Looij A, Singh R, Hatt L, Ravn K, Jeppesen LD, Nicolaisen BH, Kølvraa M, Vogel I, Schelde P & Uldbjerg N. (2020). Do fetal extravillous trophoblasts circulate in maternal blood postpartum?. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand , , . PMID: 32323316 DOI.
  4. Taneja PA, Prosen TL, de Feo E, Kruglyak KM, Halks-Miller M, Curnow KJ & Bhatt S. (2017). Fetal aneuploidy screening with cell-free DNA in late gestation. J. Matern. Fetal. Neonatal. Med. , 30, 338-342. PMID: 27124739 DOI.
  5. Bianchi DW, Parsa S, Bhatt S, Halks-Miller M, Kurtzman K, Sehnert AJ & Swanson A. (2015). Fetal sex chromosome testing by maternal plasma DNA sequencing: clinical laboratory experience and biology. Obstet Gynecol , 125, 375-82. PMID: 25568992 DOI.
  6. Norwitz ER & Levy B. (2013). Noninvasive prenatal testing: the future is now. Rev Obstet Gynecol , 6, 48-62. PMID: 24466384
  7. Kitzman JO, Snyder MW, Ventura M, Lewis AP, Qiu R, Simmons LE, Gammill HS, Rubens CE, Santillan DA, Murray JC, Tabor HK, Bamshad MJ, Eichler EE & Shendure J. (2012). Noninvasive whole-genome sequencing of a human fetus. Sci Transl Med , 4, 137ra76. PMID: 22674554 DOI.
  8. Guo X, Bayliss P, Damewood M, Varney J, Ma E, Vallecillo B & Dhallan R. (2012). A noninvasive test to determine paternity in pregnancy. N. Engl. J. Med. , 366, 1743-5. PMID: 22551147 DOI.
  9. Eikmans M, van Halteren AG, van Besien K, van Rood JJ, Drabbels JJ & Claas FH. (2014). Naturally acquired microchimerism: implications for transplantation outcome and novel methodologies for detection. Chimerism , 5, 24-39. PMID: 24762743


Liston R, Sawchuck D & Young D. (2007). Fetal health surveillance: antepartum and intrapartum consensus guideline. J Obstet Gynaecol Can , 29, S3-56. PMID: 17845745

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Prenatal Diagnosis Terms

  • blastomere biopsy - An ART preimplantation genetic diagnosis technique carried out at cleavage stage (day 3), excluding poor quality embryos, detects chromosomal abnormalities of both maternal and paternal origin. May not detect cellular mosaicism in the embryo.
  • blastocyst biopsy - An ART preimplantation genetic diagnosis technique carried out at blastocyst stage (day 4-5), removes several trophoblast (trophoderm) cells, detects chromosomal abnormalities of both maternal and paternal origin and may detect cellular mosaicism.
  • cell-free fetal deoxyribonucleic acid - (cfDNA) refers to fetal DNA circulating and isolated from the plasma portion of maternal blood. Can be performed from GA 10 weeks as a first-tier test or as a second-tier test, with women with increased probability on combined first trimester screening offered cfDNA or diagnostic testing.
  • false negative rate - The proportion of pregnancies that will test negative given that the congenital anomaly is present.
  • false positive rate - The proportion of pregnancies that will test positive given that the congenital anomaly is absent.
  • free β human chorionic gonadotrophin - beta-hCG subunit of hCG used as a diagnostic marker for: early detection of pregnancy, Trisomy 21, spontaneous abortion, ectopic pregnancy, hydatidiform mole or choriocarcinoma.
  • multiples of the median - (MoM) A multiple of the median is a measure of how far an individual test result deviates from the median and is used to report the results of medical screening tests, particularly where the results of the individual tests are highly variable.
  • negative predictive value - The probability that a congenital anomaly is absent given that the prenatal screening test is negative.
  • Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing - (NIPT) could refer to ultrasound or other imaging techniques, but more frequently used to describe analysis of cell-free fetal DNA circulating in maternal blood.
  • polar body biopsy - (PB biopsy) An ART preimplantation genetic diagnosis technique that removes either the first or second polar body from the zygote. As these are generated by oocyte meiosis they detects chromosomal abnormalities only on the female genetics.
  • positive predictive value - The probability that a congenital anomaly is present given that the prenatal screening test is positive.
  • prenatal screening sensitivity - (detection rate) The probability of testing positive on a prenatal screening test if the congenital anomaly is present.
  • prenatal screening specificity - The probability of testing negative on a prenatal screening test if the congenital anomaly is absent.
  • quadruple test (maternal serum testing of a-fetoprotein Template:AFP, free B-hCG or total hCG, unconjugated estriol, and inhibin A) is a fetal chromosomal anomaly test usually carried out later in pregnancy (GA 14 to 20 weeks).
  • single nucleotide polymorphisms - (SNPs) the variation in a single DNA nucleotide that occurs at a specific position in the genome.
  • triple test - (maternal serum testing of a-fetoprotein Template:AFP, free B-hCG or total hCG, and unconjugated estriol) is a fetal chromosomal anomaly test usually carried out later in pregnancy (GA 14 to 20 weeks).

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Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2024, April 16) Embryology Fetal Cells in Maternal Blood. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Fetal_Cells_in_Maternal_Blood

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