Interleukins (IL)-8, IL-1α, IL-1β, and IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1RA) have emerged as indicators of vaginal inflammation and HIV-1 transmission risk. We provide values and factors of normal variation of these immune mediators in premenopausal women to allow their wider clinical application as biomarkers of vaginal health. Cross-sectional analyzes (Kruskal-Wallis and Wilcoxon exact tests) of cytokine concentrations in relation to sociodemographic variables and Nugent score were performed on baseline (prior to product) cervicovaginal lavage from two Phase I randomized microbicide trials. All women in the analysis had regular menstrual cycles, 72 h abstinence, normal blood and Pap tests, and absence of genitourinary infections, study-relevant allergies, antibiotics use and history of substance abuse. Cytokine norms were defined as the values among those with Nugent score <4. Among women with normal Nugent score (n=92), IL-8 and IL-1β were lowest in those using abstinence as compared to hormonal contraceptives or male/female sterilization as their primary method for birth control. No difference was found by age, prior pregnancy, or education, and also by race after controlling for contraceptive method. Women with abnormal (>7) and borderline (4-6) Nugent scores had elevated IL-1α and/or IL-1β although their IL-1RA-to-IL(α+β) ratio remained within the normal range due to higher IL-1RA. Women with borderline Nugent scores had IL-8 levels above the normal range. IL-8 and the IL-1RA-to-IL-1 ratio can be used as independent biomarkers of vaginal immune balance. More studies must determine the role of sexual activity, contraceptive method, and borderline Nugent scores, which normally are not exclusion criteria for enrollment in microbicide trials but may affect product tolerability and HIV-1 risk due to the aberrant cytokine levels.
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