Effect of progestins on immunity: medroxyprogesterone but not norethisterone or levonorgestrel suppresses the function of T cells and pDCs

Contraception. 2014 Aug;90(2):123-9. doi: 10.1016/j.contraception.2014.02.006. Epub 2014 Feb 26.


Objectives: The potential effect of hormonal contraception on HIV-1 acquisition and transmission represents an important public health issue. Several observational studies have suggested an association between the use of hormonal contraception, in particular injectable depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA), and an increased risk of HIV-1 acquisition and transmission. We and others have previously demonstrated that DMPA acts as a potent inhibitor of innate and adaptive immune mechanisms. The study presented here addresses the immunomodulatory properties of several common progestins with a potential to replace DMPA.

Study design: To identify safe alternatives to DMPA, we tested the effect of commonly used progestins on the function of human primary T cells and plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) obtained from the blood of healthy premenopausal women.

Results: Medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) inhibited the activation of T cells and pDCs in response to T cell receptor- and Toll-like receptor-mediated activation at physiological concentrations. Etonogestrel exerted a partial suppressive activity at high concentrations. In sharp contrast, norethisterone (NET) and levonorgestrel (LNG) did not exhibit detectable immunosuppressive activity.

Conclusion: Evidence indicating the immunosuppressive properties of DMPA strongly suggests that DMPA should be discontinued and replaced with other forms of long-term contraception. Since NET and LNG do not exert immunosuppressive properties at physiological concentrations, these progestins should be considered as alternative contraceptives for women at high risk for HIV-1 infection.

Implications: The presented data suggest that, at physiological levels, the progestins NET and LNG do not suppress cytokine production by immune cells and should be considered as alternatives to DMPA; however, more in vivo testing is needed to confirm this data.

Keywords: AIDS; DMPA; ETG; HIV-1; Hormonal contraception; LNG; NET; Progestins.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Contraceptive Agents, Female / adverse effects
  • Contraceptive Agents, Female / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Contraceptive Agents, Female / metabolism
  • Contraceptive Agents, Female / pharmacology*
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Delayed-Action Preparations / adverse effects
  • Delayed-Action Preparations / chemistry
  • Delayed-Action Preparations / metabolism
  • Delayed-Action Preparations / pharmacology
  • Dendritic Cells / cytology
  • Dendritic Cells / drug effects*
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Dendritic Cells / metabolism
  • Desogestrel / adverse effects
  • Desogestrel / metabolism
  • Desogestrel / pharmacology
  • Female
  • HIV-1 / immunology
  • Humans
  • Imidazoles / pharmacology
  • Immune Tolerance / drug effects*
  • Levonorgestrel / adverse effects
  • Levonorgestrel / pharmacology
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects
  • Lymphocytes / cytology
  • Lymphocytes / drug effects*
  • Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Medroxyprogesterone Acetate / adverse effects
  • Medroxyprogesterone Acetate / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Medroxyprogesterone Acetate / metabolism
  • Medroxyprogesterone Acetate / pharmacology*
  • Norethindrone / adverse effects
  • Norethindrone / pharmacology
  • Oligodeoxyribonucleotides / pharmacology
  • Progestins / adverse effects
  • Progestins / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Progestins / metabolism
  • Progestins / pharmacology*
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9 / agonists
  • Toll-Like Receptors / agonists
  • Toll-Like Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Toll-Like Receptors / metabolism


  • Contraceptive Agents, Female
  • CpG ODN 2216
  • Cytokines
  • Delayed-Action Preparations
  • Imidazoles
  • Oligodeoxyribonucleotides
  • Progestins
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9
  • Toll-Like Receptors
  • etonogestrel
  • Levonorgestrel
  • Desogestrel
  • Medroxyprogesterone Acetate
  • Norethindrone
  • resiquimod