Long after the umbilical cord ceases to connect a mom and her baby, the cells found in the cord blood and cord tissue have terrific potential to benefit the baby years after birth. Cord blood banking has grown in popularity as more and more parents have become better informed about the growing number of diseases able to be treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells. Now fascinating new research shows that during pregnancy, cells of the fetus often move through the placenta and wind up in many areas of the mother’s body where their influence may benefit or undermine maternal health for years after birth.[i]
The presence of fetal cells in maternal tissue is known as fetal microchimerism. In Greek mythology, chimeras were creatures that were built from different animal parts. Here the characterization of chimeras is to indicate that mothers acquire cells from different contributors—parents, siblings, offspring—during pregnancy.
Part of the mother well after
According to Amy Boddy, researcher at Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, “fetal cells can act as stem cells and develop into epithelial cells, specialized heart cells, liver cells and so forth…they are very dynamic and play a huge role in the maternal body.”[ii]
Cells derived from the fetus can persist in maternal tissues for decades after a child is born. In some instances, these cells act cooperatively to benefit maternal health and in other instances, they can lead to adverse effects on the mother: either or both protecting from or increasing susceptibility to a range of afflictions including cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
One thing is clear, they continue to make their presence known long after delivery.
Role of fetal stem cells
One area focused on in the research is the complex role that fetal cells appear to play in the female breast. They have been detected in over half of all women sampled. It appears likely that fetal cells are active participants in breast development and lactation. Poor lactation, a common affliction, may be linked with low fetal cell count in breast tissue. With respect to breast cancer, fetal cells are generally found in lower abundance in women with breast cancer, compared with healthy women, suggesting they play a protective role. On the other hand, some data indicates that fetal cells may be linked with a transient increase in the risk of breast cancer in the years immediately following pregnancy.
Fetal cells could be suspects in a broad range of physical and emotional manifestations in the mother, including pregnancy-related afflictions like morning sickness or postpartum depressions. Fetal cells may eventually provide a novel and powerful means of diagnosing existing conditions and predicting long-term maternal health. As the authors note, they could also be applied therapeutically in the future, potentially for the treatment of poor lactation, would healing, tumor reduction and perhaps even pregnancy-linked psychological disorders.
Adds to the future of stem cell research
Stem cell treatment is on everyone’s radar (for good reason). Professional athletes are using stem cells to treat a variety of injuries. Research has shown that cord blood stem cells can be effectively used for regeneration or repair such as the repair of joint damage through cartilage regeneration. Studies have also demonstrated that cord blood stem cells are effective at modulating/reducing inflammation, and in the treatment of neurological disorders (ie. ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease and strokes) that can occur later in life.[iii]
Only the surface has been scratched when it comes to discovering the potential of stem cells to treat diseases and disorders.
“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,” says fellow ASU researcher Athena Aktipis who joined Boddy for the new study. [iv]
Boddy, A. M., Fortunato, A., Wilson Sayres, M. and Aktipis, A. (2015), Fetal microchimerism and maternal health: A review and evolutionary analysis of cooperation and conflict beyond the womb. Bioessays. doi: 10.1002/bies.201500059
Arizona State University. "The alien within: Fetal cells influence maternal health during pregnancy (and long after)." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 August 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150828091354.htm>.
Kurtzberg, Joanne, Sun, Jessica M. Cord Blood for Brain Injury. Cytotherapy
, International Society for Cellular Therapy, 24 February, 2015.
Ibid., Arizona State University.