Acclaimed doctor wants to help shape UAE's healthcare system

Prenatal screen expert gave world safer way to search for genetic disorders such as Down syndrome.

Dr Ghalia Al Mahri's research has shown an early non-invasive blood test could determine genetic abnormalities without carrying a risk of miscarriage. Sammy Dallal / The National
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ABU DHABI // Emirati doctor Ghalia Al Mahri has helped to revolutionise prenatal screening for foetal abnormalities around the world - but she has an even bigger vision.

Dr Al Mahri, 31, plans to return home to Abu Dhabi after 13 years, and wants to assist in shaping a healthcare system that will stop her countrymen feeling they have to travel overseas for better treatment.

"My goal is to make an impact on a wider scale and make our UAE healthcare system one of the best in the world," she said.

"Our citizens should not need to travel abroad for the best health care. With the resources available we should be able to offer the best here to the same quality as the US and the UK."

In her research at King's College London, Dr Al Mahri showed how doctors could look for evidence of chromosomal abnormalities that can lead to genetic disorders such as Down syndrome - without the risk of miscarriage.

She showed they could accurately examine DNA cells from the foetus in the mother's blood.

"This will save many babies' lives," said Dr Al Mahri, adding her research "has changed the practice of foetal medicine".

Her 2011 study has been clinically validated and internationally recognised. It was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology last year.

Expectant mothers usually have screening tests 12 weeks into the pregnancy, which involve an ultrasound scan and blood test that can flag chromosomal abnormalities.

High-risk patients are then offered an invasive diagnostic test such as amniocentesis, in which a needle is inserted into the abdomen to pull fluid from the amniotic sac that surrounds the baby within the uterus.

Another option is chorionic villus sampling, in which a thin plastic tube is inserted through the cervix where it can reach the placenta and take a sample.

These tests are only offered in pregnancies that are considered high risk because the procedures carry a slight risk of miscarriage.

"Even when you are high risk, a pregnant woman does not want to risk having a miscarriage for the sake of a test," said Dr Al Mahri, who has just completed her doctorate at King's College London.

"Especially a mother who has found it difficult to get pregnant, or who has undergone IVF. The baby is very precious and one does not want to take any extra risk of a miscarriage. It is a very difficult choice at times."

Dr Al Mahri's simple blood test removes the need for invasive and risky testing, thus decreasing the number of miscarriages, and has 99.9 per cent accuracy.

"This is fantastic news to all pregnant women," she said. "It is a major advance in obstetrics, allowing us to provide highly accurate information to women."

Ariosa Diagnostics in the US has used the research to help to market the Harmony Prenatal Test. This non-invasive alternative, called "next generation sequencing", is now available in many parts of the world, including the UAE.

The test costs US$795 (Dh2,920) but Dr Al Mahri believes further work will reduce the price and make the test available to most pregnant women across the world.

"It poses no risk to mother and baby," she said. "The question is whether every pregnant woman should have this non-invasive prenatal screening test or only a specific category of women, and this of course depends on the funding available."

A study of more than 63,000 babies born in Dubai between 1999 and 2003 found Down syndrome was detected in one of every 449 live births, one of every 319 live births among Emiratis.