This year, the March of Dimes and other health organizations are commemorating the 50th anniversary of newborn screening. In 1959, the March of Dimes began to explore newborn screening (NBS) as a means to detect and prevent the catastrophic consequences of metabolic conditions such as PKU (phenylketonuria) on a large scale. Subsequently, we funded research into several genetic and metabolic diseases that can be tested at birth, expanding the concept of newborn screening as an essential component of maternal/child health care delivery. We have worked tirelessly to promote expanded newborn screening programs in every state and to obtain federal guidelines for newborn screening, which has improved and saved the lives of countless thousands of affected children.
Linus Pauling (1901-1994), winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954, received one of the earliest basic research grants awarded by the March of Dimes. Dr. Pauling proposed the concept of molecular disease, using sickle cell anemia as a model. His finding that sickle hemoglobin differs in a measurable way from normal hemoglobin introduced the idea that heritable changes in the structure of a molecule could lead to improper function and result in disease. Dr. Pauling’s work laid the groundwork for the techniques used in newborn screening and diagnosis of sickle cell anemia.
Robert Guthrie, MD (1916-1995) was a March of Dimes grantee who developed a simple blood test to detect PKU, a cause of brain damage and intellectual disability. Dr. Guthrie refined an earlier PKU test, making it possible to analyze a dried spot of blood on filter paper instead of a liquid blood sample, an easier and inexpensive method that could be used on a mass scale. His breakthrough ushered in an era of state-mandated newborn screening programs. In 1963, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law making the Guthrie PKU test mandatory, and New York followed soon after. The year 1963 marks the birth of state-mandated newborn screening, whose 50th anniversary we recognize this year.
The March of Dimes went on to award grants to develop inexpensive screening tests for congenital hypothyroidism, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and biotinidase deficiency. In 1992, we called for every state to establish built-in safeguards for their newborn screening programs so that babies born with potentially catastrophic but treatable metabolic disorders would get help in a timely fashion. In 2000, we proposed a national standard for NBS and applauded an American Academy of Pediatrics review for improvements to the nation’s newborn screening programs, insisting that the primary consideration should be the health of the infant.
In 2008, Congress passed the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act which established national guidelines on what conditions should be tested in newborn screening programs. The March of Dimes actively advocated in favor of its passage. At present, we promote 31 core conditions for newborn screening based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children.