Maternally Acquired Runt Disease

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Science  19 Jan 1973:
Vol. 179, Issue 4070, pp. 240-243
DOI: 10.1126/science.179.4070.240


Without altering the structural integrity of the placenta by irradiation or drugs, we have shown that it is possible to immunize females both adoptively and actively against the paternally inherited transplantation antigens of their fetuses. Such immunization causes a high incidence of runt disease among the litters. Although the putative chimeric status of the affected offspring has yet to be confirmed, the results of our experiments support the thesis that runt disease is caused by the activities of "unwanted" immigrant lymphocytes from the maternal circulation. Our results suggest that immunologically activated cells are more likely to cross the placenta than normal cells and that this greater mobility may not be related to the immunologic specificity of the activated cells.

Two factors may have contributed to the apparent failure of numerous previous attempts to demonstrate the capacity of transplantation immunity to affect the well-being of a fetus or, more correctly, its placenta, in the way that might be expected of a homograft. (i) Investigators were preoccupied with obtaining a classic type of rejection, in utero, analogous to the rejection of an orthotopic skin homograft. The birth of consistently healthy-looking litters, interpreted as a failure of the experiment, convinced the investigators of the efficacy of nature's solution of the homograft problem and there was no reason for them to suspect its possible limitations. Observation of the litters for several weeks might have uncovered the phenomenon of maternally induced runt disease. (ii) Most investigators resorted to hyperimmunization of the mothers. This would have facilitated the synthesis of protective isoantibodies capable of interfering with the expression of the potentially harmful cellular immune response (6).

Ever since the abnormalities of runt disease were first described they have repeatedly been compared to those observed in patients with certain lymphomas (17). Various theories have been propounded as to how maternally transmitted graft-versus-host reactivity might lead to the development of these tumors. In mice it has been established that graft-versus-host reactivity may result in a high incidence of lymphomas (18). Recent analysis indicates that this graft-versus-host reactivity unmasks and activates normally latent and undemonstrable oncogenic viruses (19). The work we describe in this article may have some relevance to the possible clinical significance of transplacental cellular mobility in man. We suggest that the relatively high incidence of lymphomas in children might also be, in part at least, due to unmasking of oncogenic viruses by subclinical graft-versus-host reactivity mediated by immunocompetent cells of maternal origin. The statistical evidence that male infants are at greater risk than females (20) is concordant with our observation that maternally induced runts include a significantly higher proportion of males than females (10).