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Alpha fetoprotein

Definition

Alpha fetoprotein (AFP) is a protein produced by the liver and yolk sac of a developing baby during pregnancy. AFP levels go down soon after birth. It is likely that AFP has no normal function in adults.

A test can be done to measure the amount of AFP in your blood.

Alternative Names

Fetal alpha globulin; AFP

How the Test is Performed

A blood sample is needed. Most of the time, blood is typically drawn from a vein located on the inside of the elbow or the back of the hand.

How to Prepare for the Test

You do not need to take any special steps to prepare.

How the Test will Feel

You may feel slight pain or a sting when the needle is inserted. You may also feel some throbbing at the site after the blood is drawn.

Why the Test is Performed

Your doctor may order this test to:

  • Screen for problems in the baby during pregnancy (The test is done as part a larger set of blood tests called quadruple screen.)
  • Diagnose certain liver disorders
  • Screen for and monitor some cancers

Normal Results

The normal values in males or nonpregnant females is generally less than 40 micrograms/liter.

The examples above are common measurements for results of these tests. Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Some labs use different measurements or test different samples. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Greater than normal levels of AFP may be due to:

References

Richards DS, Otano L, et al. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, et al, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 11.

Pincus MR, Bluth MH, McPherson RA. Diagnosis and management of cancer using serologic tumor markers. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 73.

Cunningham FG, Leveno KJ, Bloom SL, et al. Prenatal diagnosis and fetal therapy. In: Cunningham FG, Leveno KJ, Bloom SL, et al, eds. Williams Obstetrics. 23rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2010:chap 13.


Review Date: 9/30/2013
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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