Screening of newborns for phenylketonuria can free a child from developing mental retardation. Such screening is legally mandatory in many countries, including all of the United States and Canada. Babies who are homozygous for this genetic disease are born with a normal phenotype because excess pheny-lalanine in their blood before birth diffuses across the placenta to the mother's circulation. Since the mother is almost always heterozygous, and therefore has adequate phenylalanine hy-droxylase activity, her body metabolizes the excess phenylala-nine from the fetus. Thus, before birth, the baby's blood does not accumulate abnormal levels of phenylalanine.
After birth, however, the situation changes. The baby begins to consume protein-rich food (milk) and to break down some of its own proteins. Phenylalanine enters the baby's blood, and without the mother's phenylalanine hydroxylase to break it down, accumulates there. After a few days, the phenylalanine level in the baby's blood may be ten times higher than normal. Within days, the developing brain is damaged, and untreated children with PKU become severely mentally retarded.
If PKU is detected early, it can be treated with a special diet low in phenylalanine and the brain damage avoided. Thus, early detection is imperative. In 1963, Robert Guthrie described a simple screening test for PKU in newborns that today is used almost universally (Figure 17.10). This elegant method uses auxotrophic bacteria to detect the presence of an amino acid— phenylalanine—in the blood. The test can be automated so that a screening laboratory can process many samples in a day.*
If an infant tests positive for PKU in this screening, he or she must be retested using a more accurate chemical assay for phenylalanine. If that test also shows a high phenylala-nine level in the blood, dietary intervention is begun. The whole process must be completed by the end of the second week of life. Since the screening test is inexpensive (about a dollar per test), and since babies with PKU who receive early medical intervention develop practically normally, the benefit of screening is significant.
*Guthrie refused to patent the screening test he developed, or to accept any royalties or payment for it. Its immediate and widespread use was at least in part a result of his generosity in allowing the test to be available to all hospitals at low cost.
A "heel-stick" blood sample is taken a few days after birth.
The sample is dried on blotting paper.
Catalog No. 160-C
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