Mechanism that enables fetus to survive in mother under study

When the National Institutes of Health requested proposals for innovative ideas in immune system suppression from scientists who aren't immunologists, Dr. Vadivel Ganapathy, biochemist, and his idea qualified.

The Medical College of Georgia researcher has spent years studying the placenta and how all sorts of substances, from nutrients to street drugs, are transferred from mother to baby by this two-pound temporary organ of pregnancy.

But he's long wondered if the placenta, in addition to supplying a developing baby with the nutrition and oxygen he needs to thrive, was also helping suppress the mother's immune system so the fetus could survive.

"There is the problem about how pregnant mothers tolerate the placenta and the fetus even though the genetic makeup of the placenta is partly different than that of the mother," Dr. Ganapathy said. The fetus gets half his genetic makeup from each parent, so when this genetically foreign being implants on the uterine wall he should be rejected like a transplanted organ by the mother's immune system.

A major research finding in 1998 from another team of MCG researchers led by Drs. Andrew L. Mellor and David Munn showed that early in pregnancy, at the time of implantation, placental cells express an enzyme, indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, or IDO, that locally disables the mother's immune system. "Our IDO mechanism was one that, if you suddenly interrupt it, the fetus can't do without," said Dr. Munn, pediatric hematologist-oncologist who also is a co-investigator on Dr. Ganapathy's study. Dr. Munn has no doubt that the body has multiple mechanisms to protect the fetus and so procreation. "I think we can state with confidence that the mother and fetus use multiple mechanisms to make sure that the fetus is not rejected," he said.

Evidence about at least one other mechanism began showing up years ago when an article, published in a 1977 issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

Contact: Toni Baker
Medical College of Georgia

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