Autoimmune diseases in pregnancy Study
Society for Women's Health Research
November 29, 2001
It's no shocker that pregnancy changes a woman's body. Still, sagging breasts, wider hips and bigger feet aren't the only remnants of pregnancy. Long after the cord is cut, a baby's cells can remain inside the mother's body, permanently changing her genetic blueprint.
Studies have shown that fetal cells can persist in a woman's body for decades after giving birth. Conversely, maternal cells often live in a child's body well into adult life. Many researchers believe that understanding how a woman's immune system responds to these 'foreign' cells may help unlock the mysteries of autoimmune disease.
The immune system normally springs to action when bacteria, viruses and other unfamiliar cells invade the body. Yet in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, the body attacks its own healthy tissue. For unexplained reasons, more than 75 percent of autoimmune diseases occur in women, primarily during the childbearing years. A slew of other sex differences exist including the fact that multiple sclerosis typically progresses more quickly in men than in women.
In an effort to explain these sex differences, scientists have investigated the effect of pregnancy on these disorders. Depending upon the illness, pregnancy may improve, aggravate or trigger autoimmune disease. For example, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis often subside during pregnancy, but worsen or occur for the first time soon after giving birth. Results of a number of recent studies suggest that a fetus' invading cells may trigger these pregnancy-associated changes.
In order for the immune system to defend against trespassers it must be able to distinguish between self and non-self. A group of molecules called the human leukocyte antigens (HLA) play a major part in this making this distinction. Most cells have HLAs on their surfaces that are unique to each person. When the immune system sees cells with foreign HLAs, it attacks.
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