NRL News

“Leftover” cells from babies provide significant health benefits for their mothers years, even decades, later

by | Oct 21, 2014


By Dave Andrusko

unborn_baby68Over the past few years, NRL News Today has run a series of stories on the absolutely amazing interplay between mother and unborn child. See, for example, and

They are based on something that is widely known in the scientific community but news to most of the rest of us. And that is that years—even decades—after a mother delivers her baby, some of the fetal cells will remain in her body.

There is considerable research demonstrating that these fetal cells (the scientific name for the phenomenon is fetomaternal microchimerism) “come to the mother’s rescue,” as a reporter once put, by repairing cells.

The latest popular overview is a story that ran yesterday in The Atlantic. Written by Vanessa Hua, the lengthy headline and subhead is, “Your Baby’s Leftover DNA Is Making You Stronger: Microchimerism, a phenomenon in which women harbor residual fetal cells from their children long after they’ve given birth, may come with significant health advantages.”

It takes Hua a while to get to the point, but it’s worth plowing through. Using the results of a recent study in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Hua says , “these cells may substantially improve the health of the women who house them.” How they came to this conclusion is intriguing.

In brief, epidemiologists analyzed the data of 272 elderly Danish women. Of the 70% who had a “Y” sex chromosome ( a sign of the presence of male cells) in their blood, “their overall mortality rate was a whopping 60 percent lower, primarily because of a lower incidence of cancer,” Hua writes. “Eight-five percent of these women made it to age 80, compared to 67 percent of women without the presence of these cells.” [1]

So what’s going on? It’s not entirely clear, Hua writes. As we alluded to above, previous research shows that these fetal cells “play a role in the repair of damaged tissue, helping form new blood vessels to heal wounds.”

But beyond that “past research suggests microchimerism may boost immune surveillance—that is, the body’s ability to recognize and destroy pathogens and cells that might become cancerous,” Hua explains. ”Microchimerism is also associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer.”

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After detours down other interesting (but unrelated to our concerns) road, Hua concludes by talking about and then quoting Mads Kamper-Jørgensen, an associate professor of public health at the University of Copenhagen, who is the lead author of the study. Kamper-Jørgensen’s current research is

“also investigating the association between microchimersim and allergies in women; those with more children tend to have fewer allergies compared to those who don’t. In another study, he plans to examine microchimerism and its association with rates of brain, cervical, and lung cancer.

“’There’s so much [epidemiological] observation out there,’ Kamper-Jørgensen said. ‘Having kids protects you from breast cancer, but we don’t really know why. If you have kids, you live longer, but we don’t really know why. Women live longer than men, but we don’t know why. This phenomenon, this may be it.’”

[1] At the very end of the story Hua explains that it turns out that it doesn’t make any difference whether the fetal cells are from a boy or a girl; it’s just easier to find “Y” cells among all those “X” cells.

Categories: Unborn Children