Trisomy 13 – Patau syndrome

March 13, Trisomy 13 Awareness Day

Trisomy 13 is a genetic condition in which cells in the body have 3 copies of chromosome 13 instead of 2. The condition arises when mistakes occur during cell division and fertilization, when the egg or the sperm carry an additional copy of chromosome 13 and pass it on to the embryo. The extra chromosome affects the genetic balance resulting in a variety of symptoms and health problems, ranging from miscarriages and stillbirths to short life span and compromised life quality of affected individuals1,2. Additionally, one of the greater obstacles is the conflict between the medical professionals regarding treatment intervention, which undoubtedly colors the expecting parents’ decision on their options following a trisomy 13 diagnosis.

Initially described in 1656 as a case study by Thomas Bartholin, trisomy 13 was first reported in 1960 by Klaus Patau, his wife, Eeva Therman – also known as Mrs. X Chromosome for her extensive research into sex chromosomes – and by Smith, Inhorn and Wagner3. In honor of the scientists who described it, the condition is also referred as Bartholin-Patau, or more commonly as Patau syndrome.

Trisomy 13 occurs in 1 in 16,000 births1. The risk of having a baby with trisomy 13 increases with maternal age, as mistakes in the egg happen more frequently and are not corrected. The risk of trisomy 13 recurrence is around 1%2. This risk is higher only in cases where one of the parents unknowingly carries a translocation, i.e. all the genetic material is present, but it is found in the wrong chromosomes. Consequently, mistakes during cell division are more frequent – but with proper genetic testing and fertility treatments, having a healthy baby for translocation carriers is possible.

The majority of cases with Patau’s syndromes have a full trisomy 13, where there is an extra whole chromosome. There are cases of partial trisomy 13, and of mosaic trisomy 13 — where some cells have 3 copies of chromosome 13, while other cells have 2. Because of this, the symptoms of trisomy 13 vary1. The individuals that survive longer are the ones with partial and mosaic trisomies, as symptoms are fewer and less severe.

Trisomy 13 is often characterized as ‘the most lethal chromosomal trisomy’. Indeed, the most severe trisomy 13 cases – accounting for 95% overall – die in utero during early pregnancy2,4. Of the babies with trisomy 13 carried to term, some are stillborn while others die within the first days or weeks of life. Babies born with trisomy 13 may have low birth weight and fail to thrive (gain weight), and exhibit heart, kidney, vision and hearing problems. Additionally, congenital defects like spina bifida, cleft lip and palate, exomphalos, polydactyly and curved feet, referred as ‘rocker bottom’ are common. Neurological problems like seizures, microcephaly (small head) or cutis aplasia (skin missing from the scalp) may also be present1,2,5. A very small percentage (5-15%) of children with trisomy 13 survive past their first year of life4, so parents and support groups want to stop the classification of this disorder as ‘universally lethal’ or ‘incompatible with life’.

Unfortunately, trisomy 13 cannot be prevented and there is no cure; although corrective surgeries and comfort measures have been found beneficial in some cases. As very few babies with trisomy 13 survive, there is a debate amongst healthcare professionals on how much medical intervention should be given to trisomy 13 infants. Mortality rates of trisomy 13 were calculated at a time when withholding care for trisomy 13 patients was common practice6,7, so it is fathomable that the survival rate of trisomy 13 would not be so low if medical care had been provided to patients. Accurate information, and awareness on the condition and the spectrum of symptoms’ severity is instrumental in clinical management, so that expecting parents are well-informed in their decisions.

Trisomy 13 can be detected prenatally through ultrasound, serum marker screening and non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT). NIPT has the highest detection accuracy, and can be performed from the 10th week of pregnancy. Prenatal diagnosis is integral in trisomy 13 management, as it reduces postnatal diagnostic delays, and facilitates earlier and better decision-making by parents and physicians.

Each patient with trisomy 13 is different, and their length of life is impossible to predict from the time of diagnosis as it depends on the level of medical care they will receive, and the severity of their symptoms. Importantly, the change in attitudes and knowledge on trisomy 13 was brought by support groups and families with affected children that spread awareness and demanded medical care. Living with and caring for trisomy 13 children can be challenging, but knowing in advance can help in preparing parents to come to terms with the diagnosis and decide on which – and how much – medical intervention they would like; a decision that only they can make.

VERACITY and VERAgene can detect Trisomy 13 from the 10th week of pregnancy with >99% of accuracy. To find out more, please visit


  1. Genetics Home Reference (2019)
  2. Orphanet (2019),
  3. Patau K. et al. (1960) ‘Multiple congenital anomaly caused by an extra autosome’. Lancet. April 9;1(7128):790-3
  4. Peroos S. et al. (2012). ‘Longevity and Patau syndrome: what determines survival?’ BMJ case reports; December 6, 2012: bcr0620114381.
  5. National Health Service (2016)
  6. International Trisomy Alliance (2014) ‘Trisomy 13 and Trisomy 18: Preparing for your baby’s arrival’.
  7. Morrison et al. (2010) ‘American Heart Association Guidelines for Cardiopulmonary resuscitation and emergency cardiovascular care. Part 3: Ethics’. Circulation, Volume 122, Issue 18.

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