My youngest daughter has platinum curls; my husband and I have dark brown locks. When questioned, I routinely tell nosy people, “All I can say for sure is that I know I’m the mom.” It’s a joke: I’m certain that he’s the dad. But as of Tuesday, other would-be parents in need of proof can turn to a new blood test that can pinpoint paternity as early as 12 weeks into a pregnancy — much earlier than existing methods.
DDC, a privately held company that offers various genetic tests, has the exclusive U.S. license to market the clunkily named Non-Invasive Prenatal Paternity Test, which analyzes what’s known as circulating cell-free fetal DNA in the mother’s blood to suss out daddy’s identity. The test was created by Gene Security Network of Redwood City, Calif.
Each year, lots of pregnant women and their partners fret about fatherhood; DDC says it receives 400,000 calls annually, mostly from people inquiring about paternity tests. Until now, only amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling could determine paternity in utero, and both carry a slight risk of miscarriage. Barring those options, couples had to wait until a baby was born, when the infant’s cheek could be swabbed and compared with DNA samples from the mother and alleged father.
“Not knowing precisely who the father is is a major issue,” says Peter Vitulli, CEO of DDC. “We believe the waiting really increases the stress level for everyone involved.”
The new test, which costs $1,625, is able to separate fetal DNA from that of the mother and father — and any lingering genetic material from previous babies the mother carried, which can stick around up to 20 years.
It’s available only through DDC, which has set up a toll-free number, 1-800-CALL-DDC, in anticipation of a lot of wealthy prospective parents. Considering that a pregnancy test costs about $10, the paternity test is in a prenatal economic league of its own.
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There is another potential hitch: both mom and would-be dad need to be on board. They both must report to one of more than 1,500 collection sites nationwide to have a few tubes of blood drawn. In return, they’ll receive an emailed report as soon as five days later that indicates whether the alleged father is “included” or “excluded” as the biological father. The results, says Michael Baird, chief scientific officer for DDC, are 99.9% accurate, according to internal testing and a biostatistican unaffiliated with the company.
“There was no way we were going to offer a non-invasive option until the technology had progressed far enough that we could validate at the 99.9% level,” says Baird, who was the guy who determined that Larry Birkhead was the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn, and says he was the first expert witness in the U.S. to testify in a criminal DNA case. That was a missing body homicide case in 1987 in Norman, Okla.; lots has changed in the field of DNA since then.
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Just last week, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a maternal blood test analyzing the same kind of DNA as the paternity test is able to determine fetal sex as early as seven weeks, much sooner than currently used methods. That test searches just for the Y chromosome; the paternity test looks at all 46 chromosomes. “We’ve been looking for a decade for a non-invasive test we could do prenatally to determine paternity,” says Baird. “This has no risk to the fetus at all. It’s the Holy Grail of prenatal testing.”
Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.