Natural killer (NK) cells are essential for establishment of human and rodent pregnancies. The function of these and other cytotoxic T cells (CTL) is controlled by stimulatory and inhibitory signaling. A role for cytotoxic cells during early pregnancy in cattle has not been described, but regulation of their function at the fetal-maternal interface is thought to be critical for conceptus survival. The hypothesis that the relative abundance of CTL and expression of inhibitory signaling molecules is increased by the conceptus during early pregnancy was tested. The proportions of lymphoid lineage cells and expression of inhibitory signaling molecules in the endometrium during early pregnancy in dairy heifers were determined using flow cytometry, immunofluorescence, and realtime PCR on days 17 and 20 of pregnancy and day 17 of the estrous cycle. Results revealed an increased percentage of NKp46+ and CD8+ cells in the uterus of pregnant heifers. Furthermore, a large percentage of uterine immune cells coexpressed these proteins. Compared to cyclic heifers, CD45+ uterine cells from pregnant heifers exhibited greater degranulation. Endometrium from pregnant heifers had greater mRNA abundance for the inhibitory molecules, CD274 and lymphocyte activating gene 3 (LAG3), and greater cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated protein 4 (CTLA4), molecules that can interact with receptors on antigen-presenting cells and induce lymphocyte tolerance. This study demonstrates a dynamic regulation of both cytotoxic immune cells and tolerogenic molecules during the peri-implantation period that may be required to support establishment of pregnancy and placentation.
Pregnancy increases abundance of natural killer and cytotoxic T cells and expression of immune inhibitory molecules in the endometrium of dairy heifers during early pregnancy