Microchimerism: Mother meets child
Professor Vicki Clifton, Dr Rachel Burgess
A unique research project conducted by Dr Rachel Burgess from ArtsHealth: Centre for Research and Practice has investigated how art can comfort and support women who have suffered the loss of a baby during pregnancy.
"Generations of women have grieved the loss of unborn babies, yet every mother has a shadow of every baby she has nurtured," Dr Burgess, an artist in residence at the Mothers and Babies Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, said.
Dr Burgess, who worked collaboratively with Associate Professor Dr Vicki Clifton, said it had been proven that that a mother's cells could be found in her adult progeny and that foetal cells survived in the vascular systems and organs of women who were once pregnant.
"In Greek mythology, the Chimera is a monstrous creature which was made of the parts of multiple animals. In genetics, a chimera is an animal that has two or more different populations of genetically distinct cells that originate in different zygotes.
"Micro-chimerism is the presence of a small number of cells, genetically distinct from those of the host individual," Dr Burgess said. "Through our research we have been able to show that the foetal cells that enter a mother's body during pregnancy remain forever in her body through this phenomenon called micro-chimerism.
"This important recent discovery heralds the emergence of micro-chimerism as an important new theme in biology."
Dr Burgess said micro-chimerism occurred not only in mothers and their progeny but also in women who had undergone elective abortion. It was presumed the phenomenon also occurred following miscarriage or induced abortion.
"Until now, the physical interaction between maternal cells and placental cells has never been examined," she said.
At the inaugural ArtsHealth Symposium held at the University of Newcastle in October, Dr Burgess explained the phenomenon of micro-chimerism and the artistic response it had inspired.
"The first phase of my work was about learning the scientific processes necessary to generate images, which included cell culturing. The second phase was to film the cells as they interacted. So I would be using the technology for science to produce creative images."
Dr Burgess used photography, video stills, watercolour and drawings to show that the mother-child bond is not just a spiritual or emotional event, but a physical event. She has exhibited the results in two exhibitions at the John Painter Gallery and at John Hunter Hospital.
In these exhibitions, Dr Burgess has recreated the micro-chimerism seen in cell culture by visualising the cellular interaction between foetal and maternal cells.
She said her works could provide some comfort for women who have suffered the loss of a baby and contribute to the broader understanding of the enduring bond between a mother and child.
"Foetal-maternal micro-chimerism represents a metaphor for the spirit of each unborn baby," she said.
"Prior to the exhibition I wasn't sure of the impact that this work may have. I had hoped that it would bring some comfort. After the exhibition many women told me they had lost children and expressed that this was a concept that was really important to them."
Dr Burgess said her exhibitions had also enabled the wider community to access this interesting new research and to encounter the poetic, symbolic and evocative potential of art and science.
"This project links scientific concepts with real human experiences, and I think that's the power of arts and health, transcending the academic. It stops being an idea and really means something for people."
Dr Burgess now intends on taking the project to an international audience, after receiving a residency through the Australian Network for Art and Technology at the University of Adelaide, where Dr Clifton is now based.
"The residency means we can continue the collaboration we have started. Because of the residency, I have already been invited into an exhibition at Flinders University Museum, which involves a number of nationally and internationally recognised artists and scientists who've collaborated on projects over the last couple of years."