Decades after baby’s birth, fetal cells “come to a mother’s rescue”

By Dave Andrusko

Fetal cells carried by moms after they give birth may provide stem cells to help the body repair some damage.
(Photo: Andersen Ross Getty Images)

Later today or more likely tomorrow I will post a story that I’ve tried to get to since last Friday. In a controlled study, patients received a single injection of a type of adult stem cell, isolated from umbilical cords. Patients who received these cells showed significant and long-lasting improvement in the ability of their heart to pump blood and their overall health.

Lesson? While there is endless media hype for the “potential” benefits of stem cells harvested from unborn babies, in fact, adult stem cells from bone marrow, umbilical cords, blood, nasal cells–even fat cells–are being used to improve health and save lives, all without harming the stem cell donor.

And right now.

I’d like to revisit a story I posted a while ago because it is such a nice twist. Instead of killing unborn babies for their stem cells, which have not helped anyone, this story talked about something widely known in the scientific community, but news to most laypeople: years—even decades—after a mother delivers her baby, some of the fetal cells will remain in her body.

To be clear these fetal cells, which are some of the developing baby’s cells, are not necessarily stem cells, but are adaptable in their ability to grow and repair tissues. We’ve carried stories about this phenomenon previously.

One from Liz Szabo writing in USA Today was particularly helpful. It brought adds additional breadth and depth to our understanding of the ability of these fetal cells to “come to a mother’s rescue” in a story whose sub-headline reads, “New study in mice shows that fetal cells carried by moms after they give birth may actually provide stem cells to help the body repair some damage.”

Szabo’s lead is extremely clever:

“Many moms carry photos of their children in their wallets.

“Yet mothers may be surprised to learn that they’re also carrying some of their children’s cells, years or even decades after the end of a pregnancy. And while a baby photo can melt a mother’s heart, the cells her child leaves behind in her blood may actually heal it, emerging research suggests.”

Or, as she puts it later, “[T]he fetal cells left behind in women’s bodies are more than mementos.”

Szabo’s story can be read in its entirety, so let me offer a few highlights] begins with a discussion of a paper delivered at the American Heart Association’s International Stroke Conference in San Diego, by Louise McCullough, director of stroke research at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

The crux of the story is that the fetal cells that remain in the mother mouse’s body appear to act like stem cells when they race to repair damage caused by a stroke in the mother’s body. This raises intriguing (but as yet still unclear) possibilities.

McCullough studied how fetal cells operated in the mother mouse who had suffered a stroke. Within three days, they clustered around the area of the stroke. Szabo writes

“But these fetal cells were more than bystanders, McCullough says. They also began dividing and giving rise to the types of cells that line blood vessel walls, as if trying to form new blood vessels to restore blood flow to the injured brain.

“What scientists don’t yet know, is whether the fetal cells were clustered around the stroke site by coincidence, or if they really were acting like stem cells attempting to regenerate tissue. McCullough presented her research in abstract form. She has not yet published the full paper in a peer-reviewed journal.”

Other scientists, working independently, have seen similar behavior in mice with heart failure. Szabo writes

“The mice who recovered best were ones in which fetal cells integrated into their heart tissue, says [V.K.] Gadi, who wasn’t involved in McCullough’s research. In a study in humans, researchers found maternal cells at work in a diabetic child, apparently trying to repair insulin-producing cells, he says.

Naturally, others are examining what role fetal cells may play in diseases such as cancer.

Szabo raises another fascinating possibility. That, like stem cells, “Fetal cells appear able to change into whatever specific type of cell is needed, McCullough says. So fetal cells in a mother with liver damage could transform into liver cells.”

Very amazing stuff.

Go to usatoday.com to read Szabo’s full story; and to “The Amazing Interplay between Mother and Unborn Child.”