Medical Definition of Chimera

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Chimera: In medicine, a person composed of two genetically distinct types of cells. Human chimeras were first discovered with the advent of blood typing when it was found that some people had more than one blood type. Most of them proved to be "blood chimeras" -- non-identical twins who shared a blood supply in the uterus. Those who were not twins are thought to have blood cells from a twin that died early in gestation. Twin embryos often share a blood supply in the placenta, allowing blood stem cells to pass from one and settle in the bone marrow of the other. About 8% of non-identical twin pairs are chimeras.

Many more people are microchimeras and carry smaller numbers of foreign blood cells that may have passed from mother across the placenta, or persist from a blood transfusion. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is also contributing to the number of human chimeras. To improve success rates, two or more embryos are placed in the uterus so women who have IVF have more twin pregnancies than usual. More twins mean more chimeras.

In Greek mythology, the Chimera was an awesome fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. The Chimera was killed by the hero Bellerophon mounted, in most versions of the tale, on Pegasus, the winged horse.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/24/2017

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