1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Research

Fetal/maternal cell transfer, non-invasive prenatal diagnosis and naturally occurring micro-chimerism

Susan Kelly

Start date




Email s.e.kelly@exeter.ac.uk


For the past several decades, scientists have sought a risk-free non-invasive prenatal diagnostic (NIPD) technique based on fetal cells that enter the mother’s circulating blood during gestation. The primary goal is diagnosis of chromosomal aneuploidies such as Down Syndrome, although access to whole fetal cells would allow testing for genetic variants as well. Researchers have pursued a variety of ‘theory-method packages’ involving target cell type, sample purification, and cell identification strategies. To date, however, the goal of routine NIPD using whole fetal cells remains elusive. Significant obstacles include the rarity of fetal cells in maternal blood, inability to identify robust universal fetal-specific cell markers, and problems posed by another apparent feature of cell transfer during gestation – the persistence of fetal cells from prior pregnancies in maternal bodies (termed microchimerism). Several groups are now pursuing implications for maternal and child health, stem cell science, regenerative medicine, and the immune system of the persistence and apparent engraftment of fetal cells in maternal tissues long after pregnancy, and the reverse – the long-term persistence of maternal cells in the bodies of offspring.


Non-Invasive Prenatal Diagnosis The discovery of cell free fetal DNA (ffDNA) that is recoverable from maternal blood during pregnancy is currently the basis for a variety of non-invasive prenatal tests for limited conditions. This project will trace the techno-scientific development and ‘production’ of fetal and maternal cells and genetic material, and the ongoing construction of theory/method packages through which prenatal diagnostic goals are intertwined with biomedical platforms and initiated into clinical practice. I will also be examining assumptions about what prenatal diagnostic technologies mean to potential parents, in various contexts, and about how ‘risk’ may operate in those meanings. See related project: .

Fetal/maternal microchimerism: The production of ‘fetal cells’ and problems of multigenomicityThis project is a sociological examination of the developmental trajectory of feto-maternal microchimerism science. The natural occurrence of populations of cells from genetically different ‘individuals’ in human bodies challenges concepts of cellular and genomic identity that are constitutive of social, cultural and philosophical understandings of the individual. I will examine evidence in the production of feto-maternal microchimerism, including cell typing and identification, and ontological commitments to cells and their multiple layers or levels of ‘identity’.