Fetuses can save their mothers' lives
Story by Big Think
In rare cases, a woman’s heart can start to fail in the months before or after giving birth. The all-important muscle weakens as its chambers enlarge, reducing the amount of blood pumped with each beat. Peripartum cardiomyopathy can threaten the lives of both mother and child. Viral illness, nutritional deficiency, the bodily stress of pregnancy, or an abnormal immune response could all play a role, but the causes aren’t concretely known.
If there is a silver lining to peripartum cardiomyopathy, it’s that it is perhaps the most survivable form of heart failure. A remarkable 50% of women recover spontaneously. And there’s an even more remarkable explanation for that glowing statistic: The fetus‘ stem cells migrate to the heart and regenerate the beleaguered muscle. In essence, the developing or recently born child saves its mother’s life.
While this process has not been observed directly in humans, it has been witnessed in mice. In a 2015 study, researchers tracked stem cells from fetal mice as they traveled to mothers’ damaged cardiac cells and integrated themselves into hearts.
Evolutionarily, this function makes sense: It is in the fetus’ best interest that its mother remains healthy.
Scientists also have spotted cells from the fetus within the hearts of human mothers, as well as countless other places inside the body, including the skin, spleen, liver, brain, lung, kidney, thyroid, lymph nodes, salivary glands, gallbladder, and intestine. These cells essentially get everywhere. While most are eliminated by the immune system during pregnancy, some can persist for an incredibly long time — up to three decades after childbirth.
This integration of the fetus’ cells into the mother’s body has been given a name: fetal microchimerism. The process appears to start between the fourth and sixth week of gestation in humans. Scientists are actively trying to suss out its purpose. Fetal stem cells, which can differentiate into all sorts of specialized cells, appear to target areas of injury. So their role in healing seems apparent. Evolutionarily, this function makes sense: It is in the fetus’ best interest that its mother remains healthy.
Sending cells into the mother’s body may also prime her immune system to grow more tolerant of the developing fetus. Successful pregnancy requires that the immune system not see the fetus as an interloper and thus dispatch cells to attack it.
But fetal microchimerism might not be entirely beneficial. Greater concentrations of the cells have been associated with various autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and even multiple sclerosis. After all, they are foreign cells living in the mother’s body, so it’s possible that they might trigger subtle, yet constant inflammation. Fetal cells also have been linked to cancer, although it isn’t clear whether they abet or hinder the disease.
A team of Spanish scientists summarized the apparent give and take of fetal microchimerism in a 2022 review article. “On the one hand, fetal microchimerism could be a source of progenitor cells with a beneficial effect on the mother’s health by intervening in tissue repair, angiogenesis, or neurogenesis. On the other hand, fetal microchimerism might have a detrimental function by activating the immune response and contributing to autoimmune diseases,” they wrote.
Regardless of a fetus’ cells net effect, their existence alone is intriguing. In a paper published earlier this year, University of London biologist Francisco Úbeda and University of Western Ontario mathematical biologist Geoff Wild noted that these cells might very well persist within mothers for life.
“Therefore, throughout their reproductive lives, mothers accumulate fetal cells from each of their past pregnancies including those resulting in miscarriages. Furthermore, mothers inherit, from their own mothers, a pool of cells contributed by all fetuses carried by their mothers, often referred to as grandmaternal microchimerism.”
So every mother may carry within her literal pieces of her ancestors.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.