Update on pathways regulating the activation of uterine Natural Killer cells, their interactions with decidual spiral arteries and homing of their precursors to the uterus

J Reprod Immunol. 2003 Aug;59(2):175-91. doi: 10.1016/s0165-0378(03)00046-9.


Virgin adult C57Bl/6J mouse uterus contains a population of small, non-granulated Natural Killer (NK) cells with balanced expression of NK cell activating and inhibiting LY49 receptors. Coincident with blastocyst implantation and decidualization, uterine (u)NK cells become activated. The surface glycoslyation of uNK changes, the cells proliferate and they induce production of interferon (IFN)gamma, perforin, serine esterases and other molecules, including angiogenic factors. Mouse strains genetically ablated in uNK cells fail to undergo modification of spiral artery segments that branch from the uterine artery and feed into the placenta and these mice do not sustain a robust decidualization response. IFN-gamma is thought, from bone marrow transplantation and therapeutic studies, to be the key uNK-cell derived mediator regulating gene expression in vascular and decidual tissues. Here, we review recent studies showing that IL-15 is the critical cytokine controlling uNK cell differentiation and that uNK cells are activated by either IL-12 or IL-18 and by other factors when both IL-12 and IL-18 are genetically absent from implantation sites. We address possible roles of the IFN-gamma regulated gene alpha2-macroglobulin (alpha2-M) in regulation of the position of fetal trophoblast within the walls of the spiral arteries, and we discuss approaches that have been successful in evaluating mechanisms involved in homing of mouse uNK cell precursors to the uterus. These approaches maybe applicable to studies in women. Our studies show that complex immuno-physiological events contribute to spiral artery modification by mid-gestation in mice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Antigens, Ly / genetics
  • Antigens, Ly / immunology
  • Arteries / physiology
  • Decidua / blood supply*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interferon-gamma / genetics
  • Interferon-gamma / immunology
  • Interleukins / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Lectins, C-Type
  • Lymphocyte Activation*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Pregnancy
  • Receptors, NK Cell Lectin-Like
  • Trophoblasts / physiology
  • Uterus / cytology
  • Uterus / immunology*
  • alpha-Macroglobulins / genetics
  • alpha-Macroglobulins / physiology


  • Antigens, Ly
  • Interleukins
  • Lectins, C-Type
  • Receptors, NK Cell Lectin-Like
  • alpha-Macroglobulins
  • Interferon-gamma