HLA Class I protein expression in the human placenta

A Blaschitz, H Hutter, G Dohr
Early Pregnancy: Biology and Medicine 2001, 5 (1): 67-9
The maternal tolerance to the semiallogeneic fetus is still a central theme in reproductive immunology. During placentation, fetally-derived, genetically dissimilar tissue and cells come into close contact with maternal tissue and cells, thus forming the so-called feto-maternal interface. The most extensive contact between fetally-derived and maternal blood cells is formed by the villous trophoblastic barrier, where the syncytiotrophoblast surface permanently floats in maternal blood. Further contact is made by some extravillous cytotrophoblast cells, either located at villous tips, in so-called cell islands, or the endovascular trophoblast population within the uteroplacental spiral arteries. The third contact zone is the so-called junctional zone within the decidua where the invading extravillous trophoblast cells encounter all maternal tissue leukocytes, which are mainly NK cells, macrophages and T cells; this junctional zone extends at the edge of the placenta to the amnio-chorionic membranes where the chorionic laeve trophoblast has intimate contact with decidua tissue. It is worth mentioning that evidence has shown that even in healthy pregnancies fetal and maternal lymphoid cells are able to transgress the trophoblastic barrier, which, anatomically, seems completely impermeable. Because of this intimate contact of foreign cells to the foreign immune system it is important to define the antigenic status of the placental cells, in particular with respect to antigens of the Major Histocompatibility complex. The role of the highly polymorphic classical class I molecules HLA -A, -B, -C, which are expressed on almost all somatic cells, is the induction of a specific immune response by presenting peptide antigens to T cells. In contrast, the non-classical HLA class I molecules HLA-G and HLA-E are thought to be involved in the induction of immune tolerance by acting as ligands for inhibitory receptors present on NK cells and macrophages. The non-classical HLA-E is also expressed ubiquitously, but HLA-G expression is characterized by a unique tissue expression mainly in the human placenta. A further feature of HLA-G is that its mRNA has undergone alternative splicing, resulting in at least 6 different isoforms, encoding different proteins: 4 membrane-bound and 2 soluble forms, which could simultaneously maintain different functions depending on their molecular structure. In our immunohistochemical study we investigated the expression of classical and non-classical HLA class I proteins in human placenta using various mAbs, which were kindly provided by the groups of A. Ziegler, D. Geraghty, O. Genbacev, MT. McMaster, A. King, YW. Loke and Ph. Le Bouteiller. For HLA-A,-B detection we used the antibody LA45; for detection of HLA-C,-B mAbs Tü149 and HC10. HLA-C expression alone was detected with mAb L31. HLA-G expression was studied using antibodies 4H84, G233, 87G, 16G1 and BFL.1. For HLA-E staining we used antibodies DT9 and V16. The classical HLA class I proteins are expressed in all non-trophoblastic cells including the fetal and maternal cells. Comparison of HLA-A and HLA-B staining intensities within the villous stroma indicates that during first trimester of pregnancy the fetal HLA-B proteins are expressed before HLA-A appears. Among the trophoblast populations, the syncytiotrophoblast does not show any HLA class I staining, but the extravillous cells express high amounts of HLA-G together with HLA-C. King and co-workers have shown recently, using methods other than immunohistochemistry, that first trimester extravillous trophoblast cells are also likely to express HLA-E. By contrast we did not detect HLA-E in any trophoblasts with antibodies DT9 and V16. There is still an ongoing and also controversial discussion about which kinds of cells in the placenta, other than extravillous trophoblast, express which kind of the HLA-G isoforms. Depending on the antibodies and the different immunohistochemical techniques used, different results have been described: Antibody 16G1 specific for soluble HLA-G labels syncytiotrophoblast, antibody BFL.1 endothelial cells of chorionic fetal blood vessels and antibody 87G Hofbauer cells. All these HLA-G labelings, apart from extravillous trophoblasts, are in complete contrast to the reaction pattern (merely extravillous trophoblast) given by antibody 4H84, which recognizes all HLA-G isoforms -including the soluble ones- through an epitope located on the a 1-domain of HLA-G. Future studies employing isoform-specific antibodies, which are not yet available for all of the possible isoforms, will elucidate the function and expression pattern of HLA-G in the human placenta.

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