Uterine natural killer cells: insights into their cellular and molecular biology from mouse modelling Journal Articles uri icon

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  • In primates, including women, and in rodents, natural killer lymphocytes (NK cells) have a unique relationship with the decidualizing uterus. Implantation sites from genetically modified and transplanted mice have proven useful models for understanding potential mechanisms involved in the recruitment, activation and functions of human CD56(bright) uterine (u)NK cells. Key findings are reviewed in this article. In mice, uNK precursor cells are recruited from secondary lymphoid tissues and are activated coincident with their uterine arrival. uNK cells proliferate, produce cytokines (interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) and interleukin 18 (IL-18) and IL-27), and terminally differentiate into granulated lymphocytes. Many uNK cells proliferate within the myometrium at each implantation site forming a structure, the mesometrial lymphoid aggregate of pregnancy (MLAp) that surrounds blood vessels servicing each placenta. Post-mitotic uNK cells are abundant within decidua basalis; frequently (<25%) associating with spiral arteries, intramurally and intraluminally. From mid-gestation, numbers of uNK cells decline. Studies of implantation sites in mice lacking uNK cells, IFN-gamma, components of IFN-gamma-induction and -signalling pathways or IFN-gamma-regulated genes indicate that uNK cell-derived IFN-gamma is essential in triggering pregnancy-induced spiral artery modification. Decidual maintenance and uNK cell death are additional effects of uNK cell-derived IFN-gamma. Thus, during the first half of gestation, uNK cells contribute to and sustain important changes in the maternal placental bed.


  • Croy, BA
  • He, H
  • Esadeg, S
  • Wei, Q
  • McCartney, D
  • Zhang, J
  • Borzychowski, A
  • Ashkar, Ali A
  • Black, GP
  • Evans, SS
  • Chantakru, S
  • van den Heuvel, M
  • Paffaro VA
  • Yamada, AT

publication date

  • August 1, 2003