Scientists Show Cancer Can Pass from Mother to Infant


Researchers say they have determined without a doubt that in rare cases, cancer can be transmitted from a mother to her infant in the womb. The report comes after a team of scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research conducted a thorough investigation of a case in which a 28-year-old mother passed along cancer to her infant daughter.

Dr. Anthony Ford, of the Institute of Cancer Research and one of the authors of the study, noted in a recent interview on The World on Public Radio International that there have been only 20 to 30 reported cases of cancer passing from mother to infant in the last 200 years. This latest case is unlike the others, however, because scientists were able to determine how and why the cancer cells were able to pass to the fetus and develop into cancer.

According to Dr. Ford, the cells that normally would be prevented from passing to the fetus through the placental barrier changed their compatibility so that they resembled the infant’s own cells. Because the infant’s immune system did not recognize that the cells were foreign, it did not attempt to destroy them as it normally would do.


In this most recent case, the mother had undiagnosed leukemia during her pregnancy, died several months after giving birth, and then her infant daughter developed a tumor in her jaw that was detected at age 11 months. When the doctors conducted tests of the tumor, they found that it contained leukemia lymphoma cells, and that the cancer had spread to the child’s lungs.

The scientists also determined that the cancer cells of both mother and baby carried the identical mutated cancer gene, but that the girl had not inherited the gene. Using advanced genetic fingerprinting, the scientists were able to prove that the cancer cells were passed from the mother to her infant.

Professor Mel Greaves, who headed the study at the Institute of Cancer Research, noted in the release on the Institute’s website that “We are pleased to have resolved this longstanding puzzle. But we stress that such mother to offspring transfer of cancer is exceedingly rare and the chances of any pregnant woman with cancer passing it on to her child are remote.”

Institute of Cancer Research, release October 12, 2009
Isoda T et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2009 Oct 12
Public Radio International, The World, October 13, 2009