Foetal cells could treat diseased brains
CELLS from growing foetuses could be injected into patients' bloodstreams to treat brain damage caused by strokes or Alzheimer's.
Researchers in Singapore have shown the stray stem cells can colonise the brains of mothers during pregnancy - at least in mice.
Initial results suggest the foetal cells are summoned to repair damage in the mother's brain, New Scientist reports.
It now seems that, while children get their brains - or lack of them - from their parents, the reverse is also true. Doctors hope the findings mean foetal stem cells could one day act as a brain repair kit. It is already well-known that, during pregnancy, a small number of foetal stem cells stray across the placenta and into the mother's bloodstream - a phenomenon called microchimerism.
They can survive for decades in tissues such as skin, liver and spleen, where they have been shown to repair damage.
Nature's ploy to "treat mother" makes evolutionary sense because the foetus has a better chance of survival if the mother is fit and healthy both during and after pregnancy. But no-one has previously seen this effect in brain cells.
"This is the first study to show conclusively that foetal cells cross the blood-brain barrier," says Professor Diana Bianchi, a world authority on microchimerism at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
Researchers, led by Professor Gavin Dawe of the National University of Singapore and Dr Xiao Zhi-Cheng of Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, showed that, once the stowaways enter mouse brains, they mature into different cell types.
"They can become almost all major cell types found in the brain," says Prof Dawe.
But the researchers have not yet demonstrated whether the cells are functional.
To make foetal stowaways easy to spot in samples from the mother's brain, Prof Dawe and Dr Xiao mated normal female mice with male mice genetically engineered so that their cells contained a fluorescing protein derived from jellyfish, making them glow.
This showed the foetal cells did not spread evenly.
When the researchers induced stroke-like injuries to the brains of some of the mother mice, the foetal cells became six times more concentrated at the damaged areas - suggesting they may be involved in repair.
Prof Dawe says it is not yet clear how they are summoned to the sites of injury, but he suspects they are drawn there by "SOS-like" signalling factors from damaged tissue.
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