Two-Way Transport: During pregnancy, some cells travel from mother to baby and some go from baby to mother. A fraction may persist in their new host. The condition is termed microchimerism. Image: Bryan Christie Design
- Recent research suggests that each of us harbors some cells that originated in other, genetically distinct individuals - a condition called microchimerism. All of us probably save cells we have acquired from our mother during gestation, and women who have been pregnant retain cells that come from the fetus.
- The acquired cells can persist for decades and may establish residence inside tissues, becoming an integral part of the body's organs.
- Microchimerism could contribute to an immune attack in some cases but help the body heal in others. These effects make the acquired cells intriguing new targets for therapeutics that could curb autoimmunity or promote regeneration of damaged tissues.
"I contain multitudes," says a line in Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself." Whitman was not thinking in biological terms, but the line has biological resonance. Recent studies suggest that each of us possesses in addition to the trillions of cells descended from the fertilized eggs we once were - a cadre of cells we have acquired from other, genetically distinct individuals. In utero we receive an infusion of them from mom. And women who become pregnant also collect a sampling shed by the developing embryo.
That cells cross the placenta is not surprising. After all, the tissue that connects mother and child is not an impenetrable barricade. It is more like a selective border crossing, allowing passage, for instance, of materials needed for the fetus' development. What is remarkable, however, is the extent to which migrant cells can persist in their new host, circulating in the blood and even taking up residence in various tissues. The intermingling of some cells from one person inside the body of another - a phenomenon termed microchimerism - is now drawing intense scrutiny from medical researchers, because recent work suggests it may contribute to both health and disease. Better understanding of the actions of the transferred cells could someday allow clinicians to harness the stowaways' beneficial effects while limiting their destructive potential.
This article was originally published with the title Your Cells Are My Cells.