Immune cells in the female reproductive tract

Immune Netw. 2015 Feb;15(1):16-26. doi: 10.4110/in.2015.15.1.16. Epub 2015 Feb 17.


The female reproductive tract has two main functions: protection against microbial challenge and maintenance of pregnancy to term. The upper reproductive tract comprises the fallopian tubes and the uterus, including the endocervix, and the lower tract consists of the ectocervix and the vagina. Immune cells residing in the reproductive tract play contradictory roles: they maintain immunity against vaginal pathogens in the lower tract and establish immune tolerance for sperm and an embryo/fetus in the upper tract. The immune system is significantly influenced by sex steroid hormones, although leukocytes in the reproductive tract lack receptors for estrogen and progesterone. The leukocytes in the reproductive tract are distributed in either an aggregated or a dispersed form in the epithelial layer, lamina propria, and stroma. Even though immune cells are differentially distributed in each organ of the reproductive tract, the predominant immune cells are T cells, macrophages/dendritic cells, natural killer (NK) cells, neutrophils, and mast cells. B cells are rare in the female reproductive tract. NK cells in the endometrium significantly expand in the late secretory phase and further increase their number during early pregnancy. It is evident that NK cells and regulatory T (Treg) cells are extremely important in decidual angiogenesis, trophoblast migration, and immune tolerance during pregnancy. Dysregulation of endometrial/decidual immune cells is strongly related to infertility, miscarriage, and other obstetric complications. Understanding the immune system of the female reproductive tract will significantly contribute to women's health and to success in pregnancy.

Keywords: Endometrium; Leukocyte; Natural killer cells; Pregnancy; Regulatory T cells; Reproductive tract.

Publication types

  • Review