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See Inside February 2008

Your Cells Are My Cells

Many, perhaps all, people harbor a small number of cells from genetically different individuals--from their mothers and, for women who have been pregnant, from their children. What in the world do these foreigners do in the body?



Bryan Christie Design

"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.

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