We Are Multitudes

January 11, 2018
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When Lee Nelson first began researching autoimmune disorders in the 1980s, the prevailing assumption was that conditions such as arthritis and lupus tend to show up more commonly in women because they are linked to female sex hormones. But to Nelson, a rheumatologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, this explanation did not make sense. If hormones were the culprit, one would expect these afflictions to peak during a woman’s prime reproductive years, when instead they typically appear later in life.

One day in 1994, a colleague specialising in prenatal diagnosis called her up to say that a blood sample from a female technician in his lab was found to contain male DNA a full year after the birth of her son. ‘It set off a light bulb,’ Nelson told me. ‘I wondered what the consequences might be of harbouring these lingering cells.’ Since the developing foetus is genetically half-foreign to the mother, Nelson set out to investigate whether it could be that pregnancy poses a long-term challenge to women’s health.

Evidence that cells travel from the developing foetus into the mother dates back to 1893, when the German pathologist Georg Schmorl found signs of these genetic remnants in women who had died of pregnancy-induced hypertensive disorder. Autopsies revealed ‘giant’ and ‘very particular’ cells in the lungs, which he theorised had been transported as foreign bodies, originating in the placenta. While Schmorl speculated that this sort of cellular transfer also took place during healthy pregnancies, it was not until more than a century later that researchers realised that these migrant cells, crossing from the foetus to the mother, could survive indefinitely.

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Image via Flickr Attribution Some rights reserved by Robert Whitehead

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