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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 01:35 GMT
When two became one in the womb
Mother and baby
Some babies could have started life as twins
Jane was a puzzle to doctors. She needed a kidney transplant, but her naturally conceived sons could not donate - because they were not biologically related.

Tests eventually showed Jane was a chimera - her mother had been pregnant with non-identical twins who had fused together in the womb to make one person.

It meant some parts of her are derived from one twin, and the rest from the other.

Jane, 52, was seen by doctors at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston, Massachusetts.

Medical staff had tested her three sons to see if they were a close enough tissue match to act as kidney donors.

But New Scientist magazine reports genetic tests showed two of her sons could not be hers.

'Male and female organs'

Closer analysis found Jane was a tetragametic chimera - made up of two genetically distinct type of cells.

The term chimera comes from the Greek word for a monster that was part lion, part goat and part serpent.

She had one twin's cells in her blood, which showed up in the tissue-typing tests the scientists carried out. But in other tissues, including her ovaries, the other twin's genes dominated - explaining the initially mysterious test results.

Embryo
A single embryo can be formed from two sets of egg and sperm
Jane's condition emerged by chance, and scientists say many other chimeras probably go through life unaware of their genetic make up.

Some do display physical signs, however, such as having different coloured eyes.

Others report problems with the reproductive systems, and been found to have parts of both the male and female organs because they had cells from both sexes in their bodies.

Around 30 cases of chimerism have been reported.

Swapping cells

But doctors suggest the condition could become more common as IVF techniques because it is standard practice to implant multiple embryos.

In 1998, doctors at the University of Edinburgh highlighted a case in which two embryos, one male and one female, fused in development to form a single child.

His condition was discovered when he was treated because his left testicle had not descended normally and surgeons discovered an ovary and a fallopian tube on the left side.

And even natural pregnancies can involve some cell-swapping.

During pregnancy, some cells from the mother slip through into the foetus and vice versa.

Up to 90% of women are thought to carry their children's cells or DNA in their blood during pregnancy - and up to 50% for decades afterwards, a condition called microchimerism.

If a woman then has more children, the older sibling's cells could be passed back into the younger child during that pregnancy.


SEE ALSO:
Boy 'pregnant' with twin brother
30 Apr 03  |  Health
Test-tube baby is half-boy half-girl
20 Jan 98  |  Science/Nature


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