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2008 National DNA Day Online Chatroom Transcript

This is just one question from an archive of the National DNA Day Moderated Chat held in April 2008. The NHGRI Director and many genomics experts from across NHGRI took questions from students, teachers and the general public on topics ranging from basic genomic research, to the genetic basis of disease, to ethical questions about genetic privacy.

Scientific American says there is evidence of foreign populations of maternal cells residing in us and, in the case of mothers, their children's cells integrated in their bodies. What new research is being done on this? What possible applications are there to understand autoimmune disorders?
     Donna Krasnewich, M.D., Ph.D.: Investigating diseases resulting from abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates. That is a great question. Fetal blood cells can be found in pregnant women's circulation (as an example). One particularly active area of research involves using fetal DNA present in the mother's blood to diagnose illnesses that may be present in the fetus. This technique is being explored as a means of detecting Down Syndrome and other conditions. Autoimmunity is a general term used to describe illnesses caused when a person's immune system starts to recognize and attack things that it should not--specifically parts of a person's own body. Your question probably refers to the fact that while fetal cells in a mothers blood (for example) contain DNA from the mother herself, they also contain DNA from the father. The father's DNA is "foreign" to the mother's body and might be the basis of an immune reaction. To be honest, the underpinnings of autoimmune disease are still a very active area of research and not completely understood. I will look forward, with you, to see if populations of "foreign cells" contribute to the development of autoimmune illnesses.
St. Ignatius College Prep in IL (12th grade teacher)

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