I avoided Facebook for a long time, but a few years ago, I finally gave in. Not long after I started connecting with long lost friends and finding out what everyone was eating, I learned the joys of Facebook memes. Every day now, I see lots of pictures with snarky sayings on them coming across my news feed. Some of them are funny, and some try to make a point. Many times, the ones that try to make a point are just dead wrong. They include either outright falsehoods or an incredibly mischaracterized fact. Thus, whenever I see a “science meme” or a “political meme,” I generally ignore it.
However, when the meme at the top of this article came across my newsfeed, I had to investigate it. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that almost two years ago, a talented writer named Amanda Read posted a story about how a baby’s cells reside in his or her mother long after the baby is born, and they may aid the mother in healing certain kinds of tissues. I was incredibly skeptical of the story, but when I did some investigation, I found out that it was true. Later on, I learned about a study that showed how a baby leaves DNA behind in his mother’s brain, and those “fetal remnants” might even fight against neurological disorders!
Since we are still barely scratching the surface in our understanding of the the amazing design behind pregnancy, I decided to pay attention to this Facebook meme. Of course, I knew that the statement on the left is true. All sorts of things pass through the placenta from the mother to the child, and that includes blood proteins which fight disease and shape the development of the baby’s B-cells.1 Those B-cells will affect the child’s ability to fight disease for the rest of his or her life.
I was, however, very skeptical of the statement on the right. Surprisingly, there is strong scientific evidence to back it up!
The main study that supports this claim was done using mice.2 In the study, the researchers took female mice that had never mated before and mated them with male mice that had been genetically engineered to make a green, fluorescing protein in their cells. As a result, half of the offspring produced by this mating process also had the ability to make that protein. Since the females did not have that ability, any cells in the mother that produced the green, fluorescing protein must have come from the fetus developing inside her.
While these female mice were still pregnant, they induced a heart attack in them and waited for two weeks. After that, they killed the mother mice and did an autopsy. Guess what they found? They found cells with the green, fluorescing protein in the mother’s heart and blood vessels! The cells were found right where the heart and blood vessels needed repair. In addition, they were not found in the mother’s undamaged organs. Thus, the fetus clearly was able to send its stem cells through the placenta to the damaged region of its mother’s heart so that they could aid in healing her!
Now, of course, this study didn’t involve humans, but its results neatly explain a puzzling fact that has been known for quite some time. In the authors’ own words:
These studies were inspired by the recovery noted in peripartum cardiomyopathy [a heart problem that usually occurs in the last month of pregnancy], whereby a remarkable 50% of women recover from heart failure spontaneously. Peripartum cardiomyopathy has the highest rate of recovery among all etiologies of heart failure, and the reasons for this high rate of recovery are not understood. In fact, it was this very observation that prompted us to hypothesize that there might be a fetal or placental contribution to counteract maternal cardiac injury.
Now the authors are quick to point out that their study isn’t a perfect analogy for peripartum cardiomyopathy in humans, and obviously a lot more research needs to be done. However, I think the data speak for themselves. As the Facebook meme says, “When the mother suffers organ damage such as a heart attack, the fetus sends stem cells through the placenta to repair the damaged organ.”
The more I study creation, the more I stand in awe of its amazing Designer!
1. Neonatal Immunity, Constantin A. Bona, Ed., Human Press 2005, p. 162
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2. Rina J. Kara, Paola Bolli, Ioannis Karakikes, Iwao Matsunaga, Joseph Tripodi, Omar Tanweer, Perry Altman, Neil S. Shachter, Austin Nakano, Vesna Najfeld, and Hina W. Chaudhry, “Fetal Cells Traffic to Injured Maternal Myocardium and Undergo Cardiac Differentiation,” Circulation Research 110:82-93, 2012
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