Who said an unborn baby cannot lend a helping hand?
It is common knowledge that when a woman is pregnant, her body passes all her nutrients and antibodies to her developing fetus through the placenta. However, did you know that the fetus actually returns the favour by sending its own stem cells to the mother? Research shows that fetal stem cells can stay in the mother’s body for decades, and come to her rescue when she suffers an illness or an injury.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are special human cells that can develop into different cell types in the body. There is a reason for this extraordinary power they wield – they work as a repair system for the body.
Imagine stem cells as the body’s raw material – they give birth to new cells that serve specialized functions. Further, not only can stem cells divide and renew themselves to become specialized cells, but they also have the potential to create new cells that can replace their diseased counterparts. Scientists are currently researching how stem cells may help cure illnesses that do not have a cure yet.
There are two types of stem cells – Adult Stem Cells and Embryonic Stem Cells.
Adult Stem Cells, also known as tissue-specific or somatic stem cells, exist in the body from the time an embryo develops. They remain in a non-specific state until the body needs them to help cure an injury or an illness. Compared to Embryonic Stem Cells, Adult Stem Cells are more specialized and differentiate into fewer cell types.
On the other hand, Embryonic Stem Cells come from unused embryos stored in IVF or in vitro fertilization labs. They are extracted from blastocysts, which are early structures formed during the second phase of fertilization in the body. Embryonic Stem Cells are pluripotent and have the (super cool) ability to turn into more than one type of cell in the body.
How do stem cells repair a mother’s damaged organs?
According to a study in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, fetal stem cells can repair the damaged organs of the mother. They have been found to cross the placental barrier and migrate into a mother during the term of her pregnancy. These fetal cells can persist in various maternal tissues and organs for a long time – unto 27 years, in some cases. They also target sites of injury. Interestingly, some studies claim that the fetus enhances its chances of survival by sending its stem cells to ensure that the mother is healthy.
This means that if a mother suffers organ damage while she is expecting – her unborn baby sends fetal cells to repair the damaged organ. According to an article in News Scientist, this is precisely the reason why many women who develop heart problems during pregnancy recover soon after giving birth.
Study shows stem cells repair the heart
A study published in 2015 found that fetal stem cells crossed the placental barrier and directly targeted damaged cardiac cells in female mice. The researchers had tagged the mice with a fluorescent protein that allowed them to track the trajectory of fetal stem cells from the placenta to the heart while they triggered cardiac injury. They found that the fetal stem cells had changed into new heart cells to accelerate repair in the mother’s damaged organ.
Further, fetal stem cells have also been found in other damaged organs of expecting women – such as their lungs and kidneys.
What may cause organ damage?
Notwithstanding the amazing discovery of how an unborn baby’s stem cells can repair a mother’s damaged organs, we also must know what can cause or increase our risk of damage to these organs. Below is a list including, but not limited to, the reasons for organ damage and failure.
1. Household and industrial chemicals
Did you know that common household items (which we probably use every day) can have harmful effects on our bodies and cause severe organ damage?
We guessed right – you probably did not!
Exposure to dangerous chemicals has been linked to a weakened immune system, allergies, asthma, organ damage, birth defects, and reproductive problems. According to a study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, sustained exposure to harmful and non-biodegradable household and industrial chemicals can cause damage to the kidneys. These chemicals can be found on firefighting foams, food packaging, non-stick cookware, paints, and cleaning products.
Researchers have linked exposure to these chemicals with poorer kidney function and even concluded that children are more exposed to them when compared to adults. This is particularly concerning, as children still have developing immune systems.
2. Use of certain drugs
Sustained usage of antimicrobial drugs can have adverse effects on our health, as they can accumulate in our organs, causing organ damage and (in rare cases) organ failure. Harmful byproducts of antimicrobial drugs have the dangerous potential to accumulate in our tissues and organs, with the liver and kidneys being the most susceptible.
According to an article on Libretexts, toxins in our bloodstream can accumulate in our kidneys. (The kidneys are supposed to be filtering our blood, so it makes sense that toxins would accumulate there first.)
Further, an article on WebMD states that the usage of commonly available drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen can adversely affect blood flow to the kidneys. Naproxen sodium and related drugs can also have similar harmful effects on the kidneys.
The liver is also particularly susceptible to damage due to the presence of toxins in our bloodstream. Because most drugs and metabolites in our bodies are broken down in the liver, they can cause severe damage to the organ. Not only can antimicrobial drugs directly damage the liver, but they can also help form dangerous toxins through the breakdown of microbes. These toxins also have the potential to cause liver damage.
3. High protein diet
Yes, you read that right! High protein diets can lead to organ failure – but only if followed incorrectly. According to an article in Time Magazine, a diet that is high in animal protein can lead to fatty liver disease. Elderly and overweight people are especially susceptible to this disease. Further, severe illnesses like diabetes, liver cancer, and cardiovascular disease can also be caused by excess fat in the liver. It must be noted, however, that vegetable protein is generally considered safe to consume even in larger than usual quantities.
Although it is safe to follow a high protein diet for a short period, following a high protein diet over a more extended period can restrict carbohydrate intake so much that it causes nutritional deficiencies, according to Mayo Clinic. People already suffering from kidney problems should also be wary of following a high protein diet, as they can face difficulties in eliminating the waste products of protein metabolism. Further, people following a high protein diet may also urinate more than normal levels of calcium, which can put them at risk of developing kidney stones.
So if you do choose to follow a high protein diet – remember to consult your doctor first and avoid processed meats. However, incorporating food products like beans, nuts, soy, and plant-based products into your diet is generally considered safe and healthy. Remember – not all high-protein diets are bad for you!
Seemingly innocuous and hitherto unknown things can cause organ damage – your drain cleaner, for example, may contribute to it! A high protein diet followed during your gymming phase or that medicine your doctor prescribed may also have unintended and adverse side effects. Unfortunately, organ damage is a reality for many people.
However, the human body fights back in many wondrous ways. Case in point – the stem cells from a fetus somehow manage to detect and subsequently repair damaged organs and tissues in the mother! They can also turn into specialized cells to repair damaged tissues in the lung, heart, and other organs.
Scientists and researchers are still studying how fetal stem cells can be used to treat serious diseases like Parkinson’s disease and cancer. These stem cells are also helping researchers study why some cells turn cancerous in the first place – and why some illnesses occur.
- What are stem cells, and what do they do? (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Stem cells: What they are and what they do (mayoclinic.org)
- What Are Stem Cells? (standfordchildrens.org)
- Cell Migration from Baby to Mother. (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Male fetal progenitor cells persist in maternal blood for as long as 27 years postpartum. (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Fetal Cells Traffic to Injured Maternal Myocardium and Undergo Cardiac Differentiation (ahajournals.org)
- Novel insights into the link between fetal cell microchimerism and maternal cancers (link.springer.com)
- Household Chemicals Tied to Kidney Problems (webmed.com)
- Acute kidney failure (mayoclinic.com)
- Organ Toxicity (bio.libretexts.org)
- High-Protein, Low-Carb Diets Explained (webmd.com)