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'The Test' Turns 25

'The Test' Turns 25A quarter century ago, Tufts graduate Judith Vaitukaitis made a key discovery that helped lay the foundation for the first home pregnancy test. Bethesda, MD.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.08.04] While the first written accounts of pregnancy tests date back to ancient Egyptian documents, the first modern version owes its creation to a small team of innovative scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Looking for ways to detect certain types of cancer, 1962 Tufts graduate Judith Vaitukaitis and her colleagues stumbled onto a discovery that has greatly impacted the lives of millions of women.

"All of those cleverly named home pregnancy tests - e.p.t. (‘error-proof test'), First Response, Clearblue Easy and the like - can trace their origins to a 1972 medical journal article with the esoteric title ‘A radioimmunoassay which specifically measures human chorionic gonadotropin in the presence of human luteinizing hormone,'" reported USA Today.

Vaitukaitis - a relative "rookie" at the NIH in 1972, having just finished her medical residency a few years earlier - was the paper's lead author.

"It had a much greater impact than we ever realized," she told USA Today.

The Tufts graduate and her colleagues had set out to develop a test to detect extra low levels of the hormone hCG, which indicated the presence of certain cancerous tumors or ectopic pregnancies.

Little did they know that their research - with just a few small modifications - would lay the foundation for the first home pregnancy test.

"While we were doing this, we had no idea of the impact on early pregnancy detection," Vaitukaitis - who serves as an alumni trustee at Tufts - said in an interview with the NIH, which recently launched an online exhibit to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of the test.

But for millions of women - many of whom have posted personal stories in the NIH's online exhibit - the introduction of the test was incredibly significant.

"You need read only a handful of the accounts posted so far to glimpse the variety of emotions elicited by the simple test that costs less than $15," reported USA Today.

For Vaitukaitis - now the director of the National Center for Research Resources at the NIH - the discovery represented a unique period in her then-budding career.

"I came to [the NIH to] stay for six weeks or six months, and I stayed for almost six years," Vaitukaitis said in an interview. "It was probably the most fun time of my life. It was the kind of scenario that, if I were independently wealthy, I would have done it for nothing."

At the cutting edge of their fields, the Tufts graduate and her colleagues were constantly breaking new ground.

"There were very few places that were doing reproductive endocrinology research [in the late 1960s and 1970s]," Vaitukaitis said in an interview with the NIH. "To compare the research tools we had back in the late 1970s to now, it's like Neanderthal to modern man. [There is] no comparison. It took brute force to get some things done."

Despite the challenges, Vaitukaitis looks back fondly on the experience.

"The second or third year, I think I published 28 papers in one year," she said. "They weren't piddling kinds of things. I mean, there were so many things that one could do if you decided to think it through to understand what in the world's going on. It was the way research should be."

 

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