Fetuses and roundworms: more alike than you might think


[image source]

I’ve been following the Feministe thread about a little girl with a parasitic twin. The discussion meandered into a wrangling about whether or not a fetus can be thought about as a parasite.

Coincidentally, the BBC now reports on new research out of Reading: “Placenta ‘fools body’s defences’ “. Fetal cells should, logically, elicit a ‘not-self’ immune response from the mother. A maternal immune response to the fetus can result in miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, or other pregnancy complications; but why don’t these complications happen every time? These researchers found that the fetus evades the mother’s immune system with a chemical cloaking device – in almost exactly the same way that worms do. The placenta contains a protein surface molecule very similar to the substance that protects nematodes from their host’s immune system.

How much this has to do with the actual issue of reproductive justice is pretty darn debatable, but the science is cool.

Categories: Science

Tags: , ,

11 replies

  1. Unfortunately this is typical science reporting, even of the better kind of science reporting — even if they get the observation more or less right there’s no context. The question of the immunology of pregnancy has been studied in enormous depth for decades. There are well over 50,000 papers on the topic. Dozens, if not hundreds, of specific mechanisms have been defined that help prevent immunologic rejection of the fetus. Acting as if this new discovery, one more mechanisms on top of the hundred already known, is the reason why pregnancies aren’t rejected is like saying the commemorative plaque on top of a dike keeps back the North Sea.

  2. Now, how many people clicked on Hoyden this morning and went, “Mmmm, that’s a nice bowl of pasta.”

  3. aargh, Helen – I’m having Breakfast!

  4. Heh, I wondered if Ian would be along to set the record straight. . .

  5. Unfortunately this is typical science reporting, even of the better kind of science reporting

    I originally had a paragraph or two in this post about how crappy the Beeb’s science reporting is, and about how we’re probably not getting the full story, or getting a thoroughly distorted version. And I thought, Well, we already know that the fetus protects itself in various ways, but I took note of this news story because it compared a fetus directly to roundworms, which was amusing in context with the Feministe thread, and since that’s what I’m trying to point out, that’s cool. And I didn’t have Uni full-text access at the time of writing, so I felt on shaky ground criticising it without reading the actual paper. So I cut out the bit sledging the Beeb.
    And then I thought, a fellow scientist will be around any minute to slam the Beeb anyhow. And here you are! Welcome!

  6. Heh, so when I’ve been downloading the full texts of refs that the Hoydenne have posted, and making them available to you, I needn’t have? Not a proble, it’s just nice to know :)
    Assuming that your W Aus Uni has the same access as my E Aus one, noch.

  7. rpg: and your efforts are appreciated! I only intermittently have access, and the gaps in the subscriptions available are strange and unpredictable.

  8. The grad immunology class I teach just spent a couple hours very superficially covering some of the aspects of fetal tolerance and the immunology of pregnancy, so it kind of irked me that all the stuff I was talking about — uterine NK cells, HLA-G, all that cool stuff — was getting ignored.

  9. I would love to not ignore that stuff. Is there a handy post or page on Mystery Rays or elsewhere that I can link to?

  10. ”Mmmm, that’s a nice bowl of pasta.”

    Yairs, Helen, I saw a bucket of alfalfa sprouts, then the haemostats, then I did the double-take and scrolled back up, clicked the link from Google Reader and was very. seriously. disturbed.

  11. I would love to not ignore that stuff. Is there a handy post or page on Mystery Rays or elsewhere that I can link to?
    There’s nothing about the immunology of pregnancy on Mystery Rays yet. It’s too complex for me to write a snappy blog post about it, even for my very low standards of snappiness.


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