Uterine natural killer cells: from foe to friend in reproduction

Diaz-Hernandez I, Alecsandru D, Garcia-Velasco J A, Dominguez F,
Hum Reprod Update. 2-Feb. 2021 doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmaa062
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BACKGROUND: Recurrent miscarriage and pre-eclampsia are common reproductive disorders, but their causes are often unknown. Recent evidence has provided new insight into immune system influences in reproductive disorders. A subset of lymphocytes of the innate immune system known as uterine natural killer (uNK) cells are now recognized as fundamental to achieving embryo implantation and successful pregnancy, but were initially attributed a bad reputation. Indeed, immune therapies have been developed to treat the 'exaggerated' immune response from uNK cells. These treatments have been based on studies of peripheral blood natural killer (pbNK) cells. However, uNK cells and pbNK cells have different phenotypic and functional characteristics. The functions of uNK cells are closely related to their interactions with the extravillous trophoblast cells (EVTs) and spiral arteries, which underlie an essential role in regulating vascular function, controlling trophoblast invasion and promoting placental development. EVTs express MHC molecules of class I HLA-C/E/G/F, while uNK cells express, among other receptors, killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs) that bind to HLA-C or CD94/NKG2A inhibitory receptors, and then bind HLA-E. Associations of certain KIR/HLA-C combinations with recurrent miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, and foetal growth restriction and the interactions between uNK cells, trophoblasts and vascular cells have led to the hypothesis that uNK cells may play a role in embryo implantation. OBJECTIVE AND RATIONALE: Our objective was to review the evolution of our understanding of uNK cells, their functions, and their increasingly relevant role in reproduction. SEARCH METHODS: Relevant literature through June 2020 was retrieved using Google Scholar and PubMed. Search terms comprised uNK cells, human pregnancy, reproductive failure, maternal KIR and HLA-C, HLA-E/G/F in EVT cells, angiogenic cytokines, CD56+ NK cells, spiral artery, oestrogen and progesterone receptors, KIR haplotype and paternal HLA-C2. OUTCOMES: This review provides key insights into the evolving conceptualization of uNK cells, from their not-so-promising beginnings to now, when they are considered allies in reproduction. We synthesized current knowledge about uNK cells, their involvement in reproduction and their main functions in placental vascular remodeling and trophoblast invasion. One of the issues that this review presents is the enormous complexity involved in studying the immune system in reproduction. The complexity in the immunology of the maternal-foetal interface lies in the great variety of participating molecules, the processes and interactions that occur at different levels (molecular, cellular, tissue, etc.) and the great diversity of genetic combinations that are translated into different types of responses. WIDER IMPLICATIONS: Insights into uNK cells could offer an important breakthrough for ART outcomes, since each patient could be assessed based on the combination of HLA and its receptors in their uNK cells, evaluating the critical interactions at the materno-foetal interface. However, owing to the technical challenges in studying uNK cells in vivo, there is still much knowledge to gain, particularly regarding their exact origin and functions. New studies using novel molecular and genetic approaches can facilitate the identification of mechanisms by which uNK cells interact with other cells at the materno-foetal interface, perhaps translating this knowledge into clinical applicability.