News of the WeekImmunology

How Embryos May Avoid Immune Attack

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Science  21 Aug 1998:
Vol. 281, Issue 5380, pp. 1122-1124
DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5380.1122b

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Before a baby can be born, it has to survive a potentially fatal conflict with its mother: developing an essentially foreign tissue within the womb without triggering a hostile immune attack. Results presented on page 1191 now suggest that, contrary to what was previously thought, the embryo wards off the attack by actively shutting down the mother's natural defenses. Embryonic cells in the placenta manufacture an enzyme that destroys the amino acid tryptophan, and because the T cells of the immune system need the amino acid to do their job, they apparently can no longer respond to foreign antigens on the fetus. If the results hold up, they could lead to drugs that prevent spontaneous miscarriages, or conversely to new abortifacients.