Some benefits of motherhood are intangible, but one has been validated through biostatistical research: women who bear children have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer.
In Seattle, Washington, researchers at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center believe they have identified a source of this protective effect: fetal cells "transplanted" to the mother before birth.
Their findings are presented in the October 1 issue of Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.
The ability of cells from a growing fetus to take up long-term residence within its mother is a phenomenon called fetal microchimerism. According to the researchers, while fetal microchimerism has been implicated as a mechanism of autoimmune disease, it may also benefit mothers by putting the immune system on alert for malignant cells to destroy.
To test the idea, the researchers recruited 82 women, 35 of whom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Approximately two-thirds of the women studied have had children, and more than half of the participants had given birth to at least one son. The researchers took blood samples from each participant and searched them for male DNA, as they reasoned it is a relatively definitive matter to detect the male Y chromosome amid the mother's native – and obviously female – cells within a blood sample.
Among the women with breast cancer, only five had male DNA in their bloodstream. Three of the five previously gave birth to sons, one had had an abortion and the other had never been knowingly pregnant. In total, about 14 percent of all women in the breast cancer group had male DNA in their bloodstream compared to 43 percent of women in the non-breast cancer group.
"Our research found that these persisting fetal cells may be giving a woman an edge against developing breast cancer," said lead author Vijayakrishna K. Gadi, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Washington and research associate at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. "This experiment of nature is all the more fascinating because for years doctors treated a number of different cancers by transplanting cells from one person to another."
According to Dr. Gadi, these findings could provide a starting point for future research on the role of fetal microchimerism in the prevention of cancer. In addition, there are other reasons for male DNA to be in a woman's peripheral blood, such as miscarriage and abortion – or possibly even blood transfusion or a male twin that was reabsorbed into the womb at an early stage of the pregnancy.
Funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health and Amgen, Inc. Breast cancer patients were recruited through a breast cancer specialty clinic at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which is affiliated with both the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington School of Medicine.