JOURNAL ARTICLE
REVIEW

Gap junction connexins in female reproductive organs: implications for women's reproductive health

Elke Winterhager, Gerald M Kidder
Human Reproduction Update 2015, 21 (3): 340-52
25667189

BACKGROUND: Connexins comprise a family of ~20 proteins that form intercellular membrane channels (gap junction channels) providing a direct route for metabolites and signalling molecules to pass between cells. This review provides a critical analysis of the evidence for essential roles of individual connexins in female reproductive function, highlighting implications for women's reproductive health.

METHODS: No systematic review has been carried out. Published literature from the past 35 years was surveyed for research related to connexin involvement in development and function of the female reproductive system. Because of the demonstrated utility of genetic manipulation for elucidating connexin functions in various organs, much of the cited information comes from research with genetically modified mice. In some cases, a distinction is drawn between connexin functions clearly related to the formation of gap junction channels and those possibly linked to non-channel roles.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Based on work with mice, several connexins are known to be required for female reproductive functions. Loss of connexin43 (CX43) causes an oocyte deficiency, and follicles lacking or expressing less CX43 in granulosa cells exhibit reduced growth, impairing fertility. CX43 is also expressed in human cumulus cells and, in the context of IVF, has been correlated with pregnancy outcome, suggesting that this connexin may be a determinant of oocyte and embryo quality in women. Loss of CX37, which exclusively connects oocytes with granulosa cells in the mouse, caused oocytes to cease growing without acquiring meiotic competence. Blocking of CX26 channels in the uterine epithelium disrupted implantation whereas loss or reduction of CX43 expression in the uterine stroma impaired decidualization and vascularization in mouse and human. Several connexins are important in placentation and, in the human, CX43 is a key regulator of the fusogenic pathway from the cytotrophoblast to the syncytiotrophoblast, ensuring placental growth. CX40, which characterizes the extravillous trophoblast (EVT), supports proliferation of the proximal EVTs while preventing them from differentiating into the invasive pathway. Furthermore, women with recurrent early pregnancy loss as well as those with endometriosis exhibit reduced levels of CX43 in their decidua. The antimalaria drug mefloquine, which blocks gap junction function, is responsible for increased risk of early pregnancy loss and stillbirth, probably due to inhibition of intercellular communication in the decidua or between trophoblast layers followed by an impairment of placental growth. Gap junctions also play a critical role in regulating uterine blood flow, contributing to the adaptive response to pregnancy. Given that reproductive impairment can result from connexin mutations in mice, it is advised that women suffering from somatic disease symptoms associated with connexin gene mutations be additionally tested for impacts on reproductive function. Better knowledge of these essential connexin functions in human female reproductive organs is important for safeguarding women's reproductive health.

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