Your Cancer Fighting Journey

Cancer Passed from Womb to Fetus-Clues to New Immune-Based Treatments

+ Pamela Friedman

Scientists didn’t think it could happen. But a recent study has proved them wrong. According to a team at the Institute of Cancer Research, leukemia cells crossed the placenta and spread from a 28-year-old mother to her unborn baby.

It’s rare. That’s why for years it was thought to be near impossible. Certain cases were suspect, most often with leukemia and malanoma, but it wasn’t proven until now. The question plaguing scientists is: Why didn’t the baby’s immune system recognize the cells as foreign and destroy them, as it usually does?

Apparently in this case, no one knew the mother had cancer. She had a normal delivery, but then was diagnosed about a month later. When the baby was 11 months old, it developed a tumor, and by then the cancer had already spread to its lungs. Fortunately, doctors were able to help and the child is now in remission. But The Institute of Cancer Research team used genetic fingerprinting to prove that the cancer cells did indeed come from the mother, and that they were “invisible” to the baby’s immune system because they lacked some DNA that would have identified them.

Scientists stressed that this case was extremely rare, and that the chances of any pregnant woman with cancer passing it on to her child are remote. In theory-and usually in life-the child’s immune system automatically destroys any cancer cells that manage to cross the placenta. Thus, researchers say this case is especially significant-it shows that the cancer cells were able to implant and grow in the fetus only because the immune system didn’t recognize them. Therefore, scientists are turning their thoughts back to the importance of targeting the immune system for new types of cancer treatment.

“This is really important research,” said Professor Peter Johnson, chief clinician at the charity Cancer Research UK, “as it adds to the evidence that cancers need to evade the immune system before they can grow, giving hope that by alerting a patient’s immune system to a cancer we can develop new types of treatment.” In other words, harnessing the power of the immune system could create new breakthroughs to help treat or even cure leukemia.

If you’re an expectant mom fighting cancer and you’re worried about passing it on to your unborn baby, talk to your doctor about your options. Remember-it rarely happens, but just to be safe, there may be some extra precautions you can take. In the meantime, though it’s sad to read about a tiny baby suffering with cancer, this study has given scientists key information, which means hope for new cancer treatments in the future.

What do you think of this new finding? Please share your thoughts.

Photo courtesy LaurSa (Laurie) via

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