HIV Infection in the Female Genital Tract: Discrete Influence of the Local Mucosal Microenvironment
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Women acquire HIV infections predominantly at the genital mucosa through heterosexual transmission. Therefore, the immune milieu at female genital surfaces is a critical determinant of HIV susceptibility. In this review, we recapitulate the evidence suggesting that several distinctive innate immune mechanisms in the female genital tract (FGT) serve to significantly deter or facilitate HIV-1 infection. Epithelial cells lining the FGT play a key role in forming a primary barrier to HIV entry. These cells express Toll-like receptors and other receptors that recognize and respond directly to pathogens, including HIV-1. In addition, innate biological factors produced by epithelial and other cells in the FGT have anti-HIV activity. Female sex hormones, co-infection with other pathogens and components in semen may also exacerbate or down-modulate HIV transmission. A combination of innate and adaptive immune factors and their interactions with the local microenvironment determine the outcome of HIV transmission. Improving our understanding of the female genital microenvironment will be useful in developing treatments that augment and sustain protective immune responses in the genital mucosa, such as microbicides and vaccines, and will provide greater insight into viral pathogenesis in the FGT.
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