Autoimmune disease during pregnancy and the microchimerism legacy of pregnancy

Immunol Invest. 2008;37(5):631-44. doi: 10.1080/08820130802205886.


Pregnancy has both short-term effects and long-term consequences on the maternal immune system. For women who have an autoimmune disease and subsequently become pregnant, pregnancy can induce amelioration of the mother's disease, such as in rheumatoid arthritis, while exacerbating or having no effect on other autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus. That pregnancy also leaves a long-term legacy has recently become apparent by the discovery that bi-directional cell trafficking results in persistence of fetal cells in the mother and of maternal cells in her offspring for decades after birth. The long-term persistence of a small number of cells (or DNA) from a genetically disparate individual is referred to as microchimerism. While microchimerism is common in healthy individuals and is likely to have health benefits, microchimerism has been implicated in some autoimmune diseases such as systemic sclerosis. In this paper, we will first discuss short-term effects of pregnancy on women with autoimmune disease. Pregnancy-associated changes will be reviewed for selected autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and autoimmune thyroid disease. The pregnancy-induced amelioration of rheumatoid arthritis presents a window of opportunity for insights into both immunological mechanisms of fetal-maternal tolerance and pathogenic mechanisms in autoimmunity. A mechanistic hypothesis for the pregnancy-induced amelioration of rheumatoid arthritis will be described. We will then discuss the legacy of maternal-fetal cell transfer from the perspective of autoimmune diseases. Fetal and maternal microchimerism will be reviewed with a focus on systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), autoimmune thyroid disease, neonatal lupus and type I diabetes mellitus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adoptive Transfer
  • Antigen Presentation
  • Autoimmune Diseases / genetics
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology*
  • Chimerism / embryology
  • Dendritic Cells / metabolism
  • Female
  • Fetal Proteins / immunology
  • Fetal Proteins / metabolism
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / immunology*
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Memory / immunology*
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange / immunology*
  • Organogenesis / immunology
  • Phagocytosis / immunology
  • Pregnancy / immunology*
  • Pregnancy Complications / immunology*
  • Trophoblasts / cytology
  • Trophoblasts / immunology
  • Trophoblasts / metabolism


  • Fetal Proteins
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • feto-specific proteins