A pregnant woman peacefully rests on a bed alongside sonograph pictures.

Potential Pregnancy Benefits: Stem Cells from Fetus to Mother

Pregnancy is incredible – in just 40 weeks, a mother can bring a baby into the world. Most people know the basic facts about how the baby is nurtured in the womb, with the placenta and umbilical cord providing the baby with everything it needs from the mother’s body to develop. But did you know that baby’s cells can also pass the other direction, to the mother, and can still be found in her body after birth?

These cells have been found in numerous studies in the mother’s blood and organs – oftentimes even decades after a child was born. So how d0 babies send stem cells to mother? And do these cells end up having an impact on the mother?

While it may come as a surprise to some, the possibility of cells from the baby remaining in the mother’s body was actually identified as far back as the late 19th century by a German scientist named Georg Schmorl. The phenomenon would go on to be named “fetal microchimerism”.

In the late 20th century scientists began to take interest in these cells again, with the suspicion that they may have interesting properties and even potentially have the ability to impact the mother. Fetal cells actually have the ability to go become other cell types in the mother’s body – according to Dr. J. Lee Nelson of the University of Washington. The cells have been found in the liver as functioning liver cells, as heart muscle cells in the heart, and have even crossed the blood-brain barrier to become neurons in the brain.

Scientists are incredibly interested in these cells, because they may go on to affect the mother’s health – both positively and negatively. Initial studies suggested a largely negative role, and connected the cells to conditions including preeclampsia and autoimmune diseases. These cells may be a reason some mothers with autoimmune diseases experience renewed symptoms after the birth of their child, as the mother’s immune system tends to respond more aggressively after birth, potentially to clear these foreign cells from the body.

But Dr. Nelson stresses that the viewpoint should not actually be negative, and calls the baby’s cells “friends”. Fetal cells have been found in scar tissue, notably scars left by C-sections, helping create collagen for healing.

The relationship to the immune system is also more complicated than the mother’s body simply trying to remove baby’s cells and experiencing issues if a preexisting autoimmune condition was also involved. Cells that do not too closely resemble the mother’s may be less likely to trigger a negative response and actually have a positive impact.

Fetal cells are linked to an overall decreased risk of rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune condition that has been connected to negative impacts of fetal cells if the mother’s immune system reacts too strongly) and may help provide some protection against breast cancer.

Dr. Hilary Gammill, also of the University of Washington, says that although they have not yet been observed doing this yet, there are studies suggesting baby’s cells may help identify and eliminate breast cancer cells, aiding the mother’s immune system before the cells become truly dangerous.

And it turns out that sometimes fetal stem cells in mother end up passing on to the child during pregnancy too! And it might not just be “mother cells” passing along to baby. Cells from an older sibling may find their way to a younger sibling in the womb. And because cells from a mother may also be able to remain in a child’s body for decades, they could potentially pass them along to their children as well. According to Dr. Amy Boddy, this has not yet been documented, but could mean that more of our family tree can be found in our bodies than we may expect.

Research is still ongoing, and likely will be for decades. Greater understanding of how pregnancy affects mothers and their babies has already provided greater knowledge of how our complicated immune systems function and could lend vital insights as researchers continue to seek solutions for some of our greatest challenges, like cancers and autoimmune conditions that are resistant to treatment.

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