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Cancer Cells Can Pass from Mom to Fetus

Cancer Cells Can Pass from Mom to FetusGroundbreaking medical research completed by a team at the Institute of Cancer Research, a college of the University of London, working in conjunction with researchers in Japan, discovered that certain cancer cells can cross the placenta of an afflicted mother-to-be into her unborn baby.

Such a link had been suspected previously, with about 17 cases of leukemia and melanoma supposedly passed on from mother to fetus, but genetic “fingerprinting” has established a definite link.

In the most recent case, a Japanese mother died from complications of leukemia one month after giving birth. Eleven months later, her supposedly healthy baby daughter was diagnosed with lymphoma, which is now in remission.

The researchers discovered that cancer cells of both mother and baby carried the identical mutated cancer gene, but the infant had not inherited the gene – instead, it passed through the placenta during the mother’s pregnancy.

Cause for concern?

The fetus’ immune system did not recognize the cancer cells as foreign bodies and so did not destroy them. However, in an article posted on the Guardian website, a UK-based newspaper, Professor Mel Greaves stresses, “The chances of any pregnant woman with cancer passing it on to her child are remote.” Greaves led the research study that uncovered this important link.

Rather than giving pregnant women yet another thing to worry about (the Japanese mother who prompted the study did not know she had leukemia until after she gave birth), the study provides hope for future cancer research and insight into possible cures.

In the same article, Dr David Grant, scientific director at Leukaemia Research, said: “The important message from this … is that leukemia cells can be destroyed by the immune system. Harnessing the power of the immune system to cure and protect patients from leukemia is one of our priority areas of research.”

This story truly is one about finding a glimmer of good out of sad news.

More Facts About Cancer and Pregnancy

According to research, about 1 in every 1,000 pregnant women is diagnosed with cancer, but pregnancy does not cause any form of cancer. Sometimes standard pre-natal testing, such as ultrasounds or PAP smears, may uncover cancers that had gone previously undetected.

On the other hand, symptoms of certain cancers may be similar to symptoms of pregnancy, which can actually delay detection of the cancer.

Breast cancer, occurring in one in every 3,000 pregnant women, is the most common form of cancer during pregnancy.

Treatment of cancer during pregnancy may include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy

The latter two treatments are prescribed conservatively, only after careful consideration to their effects on the fetus. Chemotherapy is often safe in the second and third trimesters, with drugs that do not pass through the placenta.

It Can Be Done

Cancer during pregnancy certainly creates additional challenges for the mother-to-be, but with proper supervision, a complication-free pregnancy with a healthy baby can result. Do the results of this study prove differently?

Certainly, mothers with cancer may wish to consider this additional information but in general, I don’t think a cancer survivor determined to reproduce should let this stop her. What do you think?

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2 Responses to “Cancer Cells Can Pass from Mom to Fetus”


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