A 28 year-old woman in Japan has helped scientists to answer an important medical question. The woman had cancer and that cancer was transferred to her baby. It’s the first conclusive case that scientist have studied where cancer was passed from pregnant mother to child. Doctor Anthony Ford is with the Institute of Cancer Research. He was on the team of scientists studying his case. We speak with Dr. Ford. (Audio available after 5PM EST)
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. An unusual and tragic medical report from Japan could shed light on the biology of cancer. A 28-year-old Japanese woman apparently transmitted leukemia to her child when the baby was in her womb. Scientists say it’s the first conclusive evidence of cancer being passed from pregnant mother to fetus. The genetic analysis that confirmed this phenomenon was conducted by researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research in Great Britain. Doctor Anthony Ford was part of that team. This news is sure to scare a lot of women, Dr. Ford. I have to ask you first, does this mean it’s unwise for women who have cancer to get pregnant?
DR. ANTHONY FORD: Absolutely not. I think in this case, it’s quite unusual and very rare. Similar cases have been reported only about 20 to 30 times in the last 200 years. What’s unique about this case is that we now understand how the clones that would normally be prevented from passing to the baby via the placental barrier, how these clones have actually got across by changing their compatibility so that they look like the baby’s own cells and then do not get destroyed by the baby’s immune system.
WERMAN: But normally, a baby’s immune system would protect it from leukemia or cancer?
FORD: That’s right. Perhaps one or two cells may get across, but they would normally be seen as foreign by the baby’s own immune system. But this malignant clone has managed to escape that surveillance.
WERMAN: Well, tell us about this specific case. How did this Japanese woman and her baby come to your attention?
FORD: It started with a visit to the hospital in Tokyo by the father and his daughter, and she was admitted because of a massive tumor on her cheek. The father told them that his wife and the child’s mother had died about six or so weeks after giving birth from leukemia. And then after a biopsy of the tumor, the clinicians in Japan realized that it was actually a leukemia lymphoma that was in the cheek, and not a solid tumor that they were expecting. And so then they had the idea, in collaboration with us, to backtrack and try and identify where those leukemic cells had come from, using a technique that we had used before. And we were able to show that the cells that caused the leukemia and the cells that caused the tumor in child were actually identical.
WERMAN: What happened to the girl with the tumor in her cheek?
FORD: She’s been treated and she’s now, I think, nearly two years old, and hopefully is going to be fine for the future, which is a nice result.
WERMAN: Why do you think this doesn’t happen more often? I mean, a fetus does share a blood supply with its mother, right?
FORD: Well, I think that the placenta obviously forms an effective barrier to the mother’s cells anyway, otherwise the mother’s own immune system would reject the foreign baby. So obviously the baby’s own immune system, although it’s immature, can be expected to recognize and destroy any invasive cancer cells. This is a case that shows us that this system normally works very well, unless there’s a specific change in the cells themselves.
WERMAN: I mean, given it’s so rare, I’m wondering if by studying how, you know, babies, infants in the womb are usually protected, how their immune systems usually protect them, are there things you could deduce or investigate further that might lead us to understand better other forms of cancer?
FORD: Yes, I think obviously if we can try to determine how the immune system actually does prevent these cells from growing and expanding in the child, then it may give us some clues to how we can prevent cancers in the future. But I think that’s a long time off yet.
WERMAN: Dr. Anthony Ford, a scientist with the Institute of Cancer Research in the UK. He co-authored a study about a case of mother to child transmission of cancer. The study appears in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Ford, thanks very much for your time.
FORD: Thank you very much.
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