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Scientists Discover Pregnant Women Have an Immune System Clock

Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have completed the first-ever characterization of the meticulously timed immune system changes in women that occur during pregnancy.

The findings, which will be published Sept. 1 in Science Immunology, reveal that there is an immune clock of  and suggest it may help doctors predict preterm birth.

“Pregnancy is a unique immunological state. We found that the timing of immune system changes follows a precise and predictable pattern in normal pregnancy,” said the study’s senior author, Brice Gaudilliere, MD, PhD, assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine.

Although physicians have long known that the expectant mother’s immune system adjusts to prevent her body from rejecting the fetus, no one had investigated the full scope of these changes, nor asked if their timing was tightly controlled. “Ultimately, we want to be able to ask, ‘Does your immune clock of pregnancy run too slow or too fast?'” said Gaudilliere.

The new research comes from the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, which aims to understand why preterm births happen and how they could be prevented. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. infants are born prematurely, arriving three or more weeks early, but physicians lack a reliable way to predict premature deliveries.

“It’s really exciting that an immunological clock of pregnancy exists,” said the study’s lead author, Nima Aghaeepour, PhD, instructor in anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “Now that we have a reference for normal development of the immune system throughout pregnancy, we can use that as a baseline for future studies to understand when someone’s immune system is not adapting to pregnancy the way we would expect.”

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