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Fetal Cells May Cause Scleroderma

February 20, 1998

LONDON (AP) _ Fetal cells that linger in a woman’s body years after pregnancy may be implicated in causing scleroderma, a potentially fatal autoimmune disease, U.S. researchers say in a report in The Lancet medical journal.

Their study found that a group of women with scleroderma had a significantly higher number of fetal cells in their blood than a control group of healthy women. That suggests scleroderma might be caused by a form of ``graft vs. host disease,″ similar to the immune system rejecting a transplanted organ.

Scleroderma occurs among women more often than men, and is characterized by a hardening of the skin caused by abnormal fibrous tissue growth.

The report in Saturday’s Lancet was based on a small sample of 40 women, and the authors said their work suggested only a ``possibility″ that incompatibility between the mother and the fetal cells was implicated in scleroderma.

To underline the tentative nature of the research, The Lancet billed the paper as an ``early report,″ and published a separate commentary questioning the theory.

``Although there are peripheral similarities between scleroderma and disease, there is no proof that any transplant recipient has developed scleroderma. ... Similarly, what of all the all the recipients of blood transfusions over the years?″ Ken Welsh of the Nuffield Department of Surgery at Churchill Hospital in Oxford commented.

However, Welsh said, the report ``does in itself suggest new and worthwhile areas of scleroderma research.″

Researchers _ led by J.L. Nelson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle _ said the concentration of fetal cells in the blood of 17 scleroderma patients in their study group was significantly higher than among the 23 healthy women, who included seven healthy sisters of the patients.

Previous research had shown that fetal blood cells could be detected in the mother’s blood more than two decades after childbirth.

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