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Fetal Cells May Protect Mom From Disease Long After The Baby's Born

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But the discovery also means something else. Something that's a bit mind-boggling: You likely have cells from your older siblings in your body. And cells from your grandmother, maybe even your great-grandmother.

Here's how.

Pregnancy has every element of an alien invasion, says Dr. Hilary Gammill, a fetal medicine expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The fetus has different genes than the mom. So in a sense, she's a foreigner inside the mom's body. And the placenta literally invades the mother's body, Gammill says.

As the placenta grows, it reaches out and grabs onto the mom's arteries to control blood flow. "The human placenta is one of the most invasive placentas," compared to those in other animals, Gammill says.

This ensures the fetus has nutrients. But in the process the baby ends up giving the mother a gift. "There's a very large amount of fetal material that is sloughed off into the mother's circulation," says Dr. J. Lee Nelson, also at the University of Washington. "This material is widely circulating in the mom's body."

Nelson has been studying this rogue fetal material for more than 20 years. It contains DNA from the fetus, tiny pieces of the placenta and potent fetal cells. They travel around the mom's bloodstream and sneak into her organs.

"They can go to the liver and become liver cells, or go into the heart and become muscle cells," Nelson says. Fetal cells can even cross the blood-brain barrier and turn into neurons.

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