Immunological relationship between the mother and the fetus

Julia Szekeres-Bartho
International Reviews of Immunology 2002, 21 (6): 471-95
The immunological relationship between the mother and the fetus is a bi-directional communication determined on the one hand by fetal antigen presentation and on the other hand by recognition of and reaction to these antigens by the maternal immune system. There is evidence now that immunological recognition of pregnancy is important for the maintenance of gestation, and that inadequate recognition of fetal antigens might result in failed pregnancy. In contrast to HLA-A and -B Class I genes that are downregulated in human trophoblast cells, nonpolymorphic Class I molecules, e.g., HLA-G Class Ib, are expressed in extravillous cytotrophoblast and also in endothelial cells of fetal vessels in the chorionic villi as well as in amnion cells and amniotic fluid. The trophoblast does not induce transplantation immunity and resists NK- and CTL-mediated lysis in vitro. According to our present knowledge, HLA-G presents antigens for gamma/delta T cells and at the same time defends the trophoblast from cytotoxic effector mechanisms. Since polymorphic MHC is absent from the trophoblast, presentation of fetally derived antigens is unlikely to be MHC restricted. gamma/delta T cells recognize a distinct group of ligands with a smaller receptor repertoire than alpha/beta T cells. Most gamma/delta T cells recognize unprocessed foreign antigens without MHC. In the decidua gamma/delta TCR-positive cells significantly increase in number and the majority of decidual gamma/delta T cells are in an activated form due to recognition of conserved mammalian molecules on the trophoblast. Following recognition of fetally derived antigens, the immune system reacts with the setting in of a wide range of protective mechanisms. Many observations suggest that pregnancy is associated with an altered TH1/TH2 balance. Maternal immune response is biased toward humoral immunity and away from cell-mediated immunity that could be harmful to the fetus. Cytokines of maternal origin act on placental development. On the other hand, antigen expression on the placenta determines maternal cytokine pattern. Normal human pregnancy is characterized by low peripheral NK activity, and increased NK activity seems to play a role in spontaneous abortions of unknown etiology. In early human pregnancy the majority of uterine lymphocytes are CD56(bright) granulated NK cells, which do not express CD16 or CD3. In rodents and humans, uterine NK cells are under hormonal control. In early pregnancy they are enriched at sites where fetal trophoblast infiltrates the decidua. The dynamics of the appearance of uterine NK cells suggest that one of the functions of these cells is control of placentation. Another protective mechanism operating in favor of pregnancy is progesterone-dependent immunomodulation. Due to stimulation by fetally derived antigens, pregnancy lymphocytes develop progesterone receptors and in the presence of progesterone produce a mediator (PIBF) that, through altering the cytokine balance, inhibits NK activity and exerts an antiabortive effect in mice.

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