Aberrant cervical innate immunity predicts onset of dysbiosis and sexually transmitted infections in women of reproductive age

PLoS One. 2020 Jan 8;15(1):e0224359. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0224359. eCollection 2020.


Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and vaginal dysbiosis (disturbed resident microbiota presenting with abnormal Nugent score or candidiasis) have been associated with mucosal inflammation and risk of HIV-1 infection, cancer and poor reproductive outcomes. To date, the temporal relationships between aberrant cervical innate immunity and the clinical onset of microbial disturbance have not been studied in a large population of reproductive age women. We examined data from a longitudinal cohort of 934 Ugandan and Zimbabwean women contributing 3,274 HIV-negative visits who had complete laboratory, clinical and demographic data. Among those, 207 women later acquired HIV, and 584 women were intermittently diagnosed with C. trachomatis (CT), N. gonorrhoeae (NG), genital herpes (HSV-2), T. vaginalis (TV), candidiasis, and abnormal intermediate (4-6) or high (7-10) Nugent score, i.e. bacterial vaginosis (BV). Immune biomarker concentrations in cervical swabs were analyzed by generalized linear and mixed effect models adjusting for site, age, hormonal contraceptive use (HC), pregnancy, breastfeeding, genital practices, unprotected sex and overlapping infections. High likelihood ratios (1.5-4.9) denoted the values of cervical immune biomarkers to predict onset of abnormal Nugent score and candidiasis at the next visits. When controlling for covariates, higher levels of β-defensin-2 were antecedent to BV, CT and HSV-2, lower anti-inflammatory ratio IL-1RA:IL-1β-to intermediate Nugent scores and candida, lower levels of the serine protease inhibitor SLPI-to candida, lower levels of the adhesion molecule ICAM-1 -to TV, and lower levels of the oxidative stress mitigator and endothelial activation marker VEGF-to NG. Changes in innate immunity following onset of dysbiosis and infections were dependent on HC use when controlling for all other covariates. In conclusion, imminent female genital tract dysbiosis or infection can be predicted by distinct patterns of innate immunity. Future research should characterize biotic and abiotic determinants of this pre-existing innate immunity state.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cervix Uteri / immunology
  • Cervix Uteri / microbiology
  • Cervix Uteri / pathology
  • Dysbiosis / epidemiology
  • Dysbiosis / immunology*
  • Dysbiosis / microbiology
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology
  • HIV Infections / immunology
  • HIV Infections / virology
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / genetics*
  • Intercellular Adhesion Molecule-1 / immunology
  • Intercellular Adhesion Molecule-1 / metabolism
  • Interleukin 1 Receptor Antagonist Protein / immunology
  • Interleukin 1 Receptor Antagonist Protein / metabolism
  • Interleukin-1beta / immunology
  • Interleukin-1beta / metabolism
  • Oxidative Stress / immunology
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproductive Tract Infections / epidemiology
  • Reproductive Tract Infections / immunology
  • Secretory Leukocyte Peptidase Inhibitor / immunology
  • Secretory Leukocyte Peptidase Inhibitor / metabolism
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / epidemiology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / immunology*
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / microbiology
  • Uganda / epidemiology
  • Vagina / immunology
  • Vagina / microbiology
  • Vaginosis, Bacterial / epidemiology
  • Vaginosis, Bacterial / immunology*
  • Vaginosis, Bacterial / microbiology
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / immunology
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / metabolism
  • Zimbabwe / epidemiology


  • Biomarkers
  • Interleukin 1 Receptor Antagonist Protein
  • Interleukin-1beta
  • SLPI protein, human
  • Secretory Leukocyte Peptidase Inhibitor
  • VEGFA protein, human
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A
  • Intercellular Adhesion Molecule-1