Microchimerism (abbreviated Mc) is the presence of a small number of cells that originate from another individual and are therefore genetically distinct from the cells of the host individual. This phenomenon may be related to certain types of autoimmune diseases; however, the mechanisms responsible for this relationship are unclear.
In humans (and perhaps in all placentals) the most common form is fetomaternal microchimerism (also known as fetal cell microchimerism or fetal chimerism) whereby cells from a fetus pass through the placenta and establish cell lineages within the mother. Fetal cells have been documented to persist and multiply in the mother for several decades. The exact phenotype of these cells is unknown, although several different cell types have been identified, such as various immune lineages, mesenchymal stem cells, and placental-derived cells. A 2012 study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, has detected cells with the Y chromosome in multiple areas of the brains of deceased women.
The potential health consequences of these cells are unknown. One hypothesis is that these fetal cells might trigger a graft-versus-host reaction leading to autoimmune disease. This offers a potential explanation for why many autoimmune diseases are more prevalent in middle-aged women. Another hypothesis is that fetal cells home to injured or diseased maternal tissue where they act as stem cells and participate in repair. It is also possible that the fetal cells are merely innocent bystanders and have no effect on maternal health.
After giving birth, about 50–75% of women carry fetal immune cell lines. Maternal immune cells are also found in the offspring yielding in maternal→fetal microchimerism, though this phenomenon is about half as frequent as the former.
Other possible sources of microchimerism include an individual's older sibling, twin sibling, or vanished twin, with the cells being received in utero. It is hypothesized that unprotected intercourse may be another source of microchimerism, although this has not been shown definitively. Fetal-maternal microchimerism is especially prevalent after abortion or miscarriage.
Microchimerism occurs in most pairs of twins in cattle. In cattle (and other bovines), the placentae of fraternal twins usually fuse and the twins share blood circulation, resulting in exchange of cell lines. If the twins are a male-female pair, the male hormones from the bull calf have the effect of partially masculinising the heifer (female), creating a martin heifer or freemartin. Freemartins appear female, but are infertile and so cannot be used for breeding or dairy production. Microchimerism provides a method of diagnosing the condition, because male genetic material can be detected in a blood sample.
Relationship with autoimmune diseases and breast cancer
Microchimerism has been implicated in autoimmune diseases. Independent studies repeatedly suggested that microchimeric cells of fetal origin may be involved in the pathogenesis of systemic sclerosis. Moreover, microchimeric cells of maternal origin may be involved in the pathogenesis of a group of autoimmune diseases found in children, i.e. juvenile idiopathic inflammatory myopathies (one example would be juvenile dermatomyositis). Microchimerism has now been further implicated in other autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus. Contrarily, an alternative hypothesis on the role of microchimeric cells in lesions is that they may be facilitating tissue repair of the damaged organ.
Moreover, fetal immune cells have also been frequently found in breast cancer stroma as compared to samples taken from healthy women. It is not clear, however, whether fetal cell lines promote the development of tumors or, contrarily, protect women from developing breast carcinoma.
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