From just a tiny sample of blood, a lab can test for 35 rare diseases in newborns that if left undetected could lead to seizures, developmental delays, permanent brain damage or death.
September is Newborn Screening Awareness Month and Dr. Jose Abdenur, director of CHOC’s metabolic laboratory, stresses the importance of these newborn screenings in order to prevent such grim scenarios from playing out.
Newborn screening is a public health program that screens all babies for many serious but treatable genetic disorders, and the CHOC metabolic laboratory is one of the state’s largest referral centers for the program. All babies born in California are required to get screened soon after birth, but the diseases babies are screened for varies by state. In Orange County alone, some 38,000 babies are born every year.
CHOC is the only location on the West Coast for children who need cutting-edge treatment for certain metabolic disorders that can be detected from newborn screenings. Further, CHOC’s metabolics program is a leading destination for children from around the world afflicted with certain metabolic disorders, which are rare genetic disorders that result from a missing or defective enzyme in the body. These include disorders such as galactosemia, which impairs the body’s ability to process and produce energy from the sugar galactose, and adrenoleukodystrophy, which causes the buildup of very long-chain fatty acids in the brain.
“There are many, many very good success stories at CHOC, but there are still many things we can improve,” Abdenur says, citing too many false positives for some conditions that make families feel anxious and worried. “But we continue to get better at this.”
Newborn screening began in the 1980s. Over the decades, the Department of Health and Human Services has added recommended disorders for states to screen for in their newborn screening (NBS) programs. There now are 35 core conditions on the so-called Recommended Universal NBS Panel, as well as an additional 26 secondary conditions.
In addition to metabolic disorders, newborn screening can detect disorders related to hematology and immunology — such as sickle cell disease — as well as endocrine disorders, pulmonary diseases including cystic fibrosis, and such neurological conditions as spinal muscular atrophy.