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NIH Office of the Director (OD)

Office of NIH History

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Sarah Leavitt, Ph.D.

Web-based Exhibit Marks the 25th Anniversary of the Home Pregnancy Test
NIH Scientists Pioneered Research into Reproductive Hormone Radioimmunoassay

An on-line exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of the commercial introduction of the home pregnancy test is now available on the World Wide Web at: http://www.history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline. The exhibit, sponsored by the Office of NIH History, includes a historical timeline of pregnancy testing, portrayals of the pregnancy test in popular culture, and scientific background on the research that led to the development of the test. Visitors to the on-line exhibit will have the opportunity to contribute to the living history of the site by anonymously relating their own experiences with the home pregnancy test.

“This web exhibit is the first of its kind to explore the history of one of the most popular home healthcare products in America,” says historian Victoria Harden, Ph.D., the Director of the Office of NIH History and the Stetten Museum. “And the research that led to this product was performed right here on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, in the early 1970s.”

The home pregnancy test works by identifying the presence of the “pregnancy hormone,” human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), in urine. Research that led to a sensitive, accurate test for hCG was done by scientists in the Reproductive Research Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at NIH. The exhibit includes excerpts from interviews with the two principal scientists whose work led to the development of the test, Judith Vaitukaitis, M.D., and Glenn Braunstein, M.D.

“When we started this research, we had no idea it would lead to one of the most widely used tests today,” says Judith Vaitukaitis, M.D., director of the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) at the NIH. “Our approach was novel but the research environment at NIH allowed us to be innovative. We worked at the laboratory bench and then could follow patients in the clinic. It was an exciting time.”

The test of hCG also had an unanticipated and important result as well. The test was originally developed as a means to track the effectiveness of a treatment for human choriocarcinoma, a deadly cancer affecting women during or after pregnancy.

“The Institute’s investment in this research was well spent,” says NICHD director, Duane Alexander, M.D. “Not only did it provide a valuable tool for fighting cancer, it also led to an accurate, easy-to-use pregnancy test that women can use in the privacy of their own homes.”

Dr. Vaitukaitis was recently inducted into the NICHD Hall of Honor, which recognizes Institute-supported scientists who have made outstanding contributions.

The web site introduces visitors to the science of reproductive endocrinology — the study of hormones involved in reproduction — and explains the radioimmunoassay’s usefulness both for early pregnancy detection and for monitoring tumors in certain types of cancer. Included in the on-line exhibit is a glossary of scientific terms.

NIH is working with the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University in Virginia to collect visitors’ experiences with the home pregnancy test. In connection with the Exploring and Collecting History Online (ECHO) project at CHNM, personal narratives submitted will become part of the web site exhibit, and all responses will be permanently archived for future students and scholars. Visitors to the web site therefore have a unique opportunity to add their own voices to the history of the pregnancy test.

The Office of NIH History and the Stetten Museum are components of the Office of Communications and Public Liaison in the NIH Office of the Director. The National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conducts and funds biological and medical research in hopes of improving the public health for the nation.

NCRR is the nation's leading federal sponsor of resources that enable advances in many areas of biomedical research. NCRR support provides the scientific research community with access to a diverse array of biomedical research technologies, instrumentation, specialized basic and clinical research facilities, animal models, genetic stocks, and such biomaterials as cell lines, tissues, and organs.

The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as well as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD Web site, http://www.nichd.nih.gov, or from the NICHD Information Resource Center, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail NICHDInformationResourceCenter@mail.nih.gov.

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