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Women's Health

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Autoimmune Diseases: It's Not Just the Genes

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 20, 2001 (San Francisco) -- Children with hereditary diseases have their parents to blame, according to the conventional wisdom of geneticists. But in an ironic twist of fate, a mother can contract an autoimmune disease by reacting to the fetal cells from her child that remain in her body for years or even decades after the child is born, according to results presented here Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The results could help explain why 75% of all patients with autoimmune diseases are women.

The more than 80 autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, occur when the body attacks and destroys its own tissue -- joint tissue in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, blood vessels and connective tissue in the case of lupus, or the insulating coating of the nerves in the case of multiple sclerosis. Grouped together, autoimmune diseases are among the top 10 leading causes of death for women under 65.

"It is not a minor medical and public health problem," says Noel Rose, MD, PhD, director of the Autoimmune Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although autoimmune disorders run in families and susceptibility genes have been identified, identical twins of patients usually don't get the disease. That means that there must be an environmental trigger to set off the autoimmune response, Rose says.

But there's more to autoimmune disease than genes and environmental triggers, says J. Lee Nelson, MD. Rather than reacting to the body's own cells, she suspects the immune system could be reacting to cells from a long-grown child that the mother once carried. Nelson is an associate member of the Fred Hutchinson Research Center and an associate professor of rheumatology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Nelson's suspicions were roused in 1995, when other researchers found that fetal cells survived in the mother's tissues for years. The mother can form antibodies to such cells.

"Pregnancy ... is exposure to a body that's half foreign," she says.

Nelson examined middle-aged women who had sons. Half of them had a potentially fatal autoimmune disease called scleroderma that can cause connective tissue to harden, sometimes causing organ failure and death. The researchers found that the scleroderma patients had eight times more male cells in their blood -- years after they'd given birth -- than did the mothers without the disease.

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