Fetal cells found to invade mums’ bodies – and hinder maternal health

Doing everything she can to protect her unborn baby, a pregnant mother will do her utmost to make sure her child gets the best start in life. But new research shows that the effect of pregnancy on the mother may not always be as beneficial.

Arizona State University researchers found that during pregnancy, fetal cells can move through the placenta and take residence in other areas of the body, known as fetal microchimerism. Chimeras in ancient Greek mythology – or Lego parlance – are composite creatures built from different animals.

But despite fetal microchimerism being a common occurrence, the effects on maternal health are varied, says Amy Boddy, a researcher in the university’s psychology department. Fetal cells can redirect assets from the mother to the developing fetus, she says. Cells derived from the fetus, which can stay in the mother’s tissue for decades after the birth of the child, have been linked to both protection and increased susceptibility to diseases like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.


Many humans bear chimerical traits in the form of foreign cells from parents, siblings or offspring acquired during pregnancy, Boddy tells ASU News. “Fetal cells can act as stem cells and develop… this shows that they are very dynamic and play a huge role in the maternal body. They can even migrate to the brain and differentiate into neurons.”

Fellow researchers Angelo Fortunato, Melissa Wilson Sayres and Athena Aktipis worked with Boddy for the study. “It’s not only a tug-of-war between maternal and fetal interests. There is also a mutual desire for the maternal system to survive and provide nutrients and for the fetal system to survive and pass on DNA,” says Wilson Sayres.

Some fetal cells may contribute to inflammatory responses and auto-immunity in the mother when recognised as foreign entities in the maternal immune system, the research found. But fetal cells can also provide benefits, like migrating to damaged tissue and repairing it.

“Co-operation theory and evolutionary analyses… can help us to predict when fetal cells are likely to contribute to maternal health and when they may be manipulating maternal tissues for the benefit of the offspring and potentially contributing to maternal disease in the process,” Aktipis says.

“If future research bears out the predictions of this framework, it could transform the way we approach, treat and prevent a variety of diseases that affect women, especially new mothers.”

(via ASU News)

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