Hormonal stimulus

Hormonal stimulation reduces numbers and impairs function of human uterine natural killer cells during implantation

Study question: How does an altered maternal hormonal environment, such as that seen during superovulation with gonadotropins in ART, impact human uterine immune cell distribution and function during the window of implantation?

Summary answer: Hormonal stimulation with gonadotropins alters abundance of maternal immune cells including uterine natural killer (uNK) cells and reduces uNK cell ability to promote extravillous trophoblast (EVT) invasion.

What is known already: An altered maternal hormonal environment, seen following ART, can lead to increased risk for adverse perinatal outcomes associated with disordered placentation. Maternal immune cells play an essential role in invasion of EVTs, a process required for proper establishment of the placenta, and adverse perinatal outcomes have been associated with altered immune cell populations. How ART impacts maternal immune cells and whether this can in turn affect implantation and placentation in humans remain unknown.

Study design, size, duration: A prospective cohort study was carried out between 2018 and 2021 on 51 subjects: 20 from natural cycles 8 days after LH surge; and 31 from stimulated IVF cycles 7 days after egg retrieval.

Participants/materials, setting, methods: Endometrial biopsies and peripheral blood samples were collected during the window of implantation in subjects with regular menstrual cycles or undergoing superovulation. Serum estradiol and progesterone levels were measured by chemiluminescent competitive immunoassay. Immune cell populations in blood and endometrium were analyzed using flow cytometry. uNK cells were purified using fluorescence-activated cell sorting and were subjected to RNA sequencing (RNA-seq). Functional changes in uNK cells due to hormonal stimulation were evaluated using the implantation-on-a-chip (IOC) device, a novel bioengineered platform using human primary cells that mimics early processes that occur during pregnancy in a physiologically relevant manner. Unpaired t-tests, one-way ANOVA, and pairwise multiple comparison tests were used to statistically evaluate differences.

Limitations, reasons for caution: Patient numbers utilized for the study were low but were enough to identify significant overall population differences in select immune cell types. With additional power and deeper immune phenotyping, we may detect additional differences in immune cell composition of blood and endometrium in the setting of hormonal stimulation. Flow cytometry was performed on targeted immune cell populations that have shown involvement in early pregnancy. A more unbiased approach might identify changes in novel maternal immune cells not investigated in this study. We performed RNA-seq only on uNK cells, which demonstrated differences in gene expression. Ovarian stimulation may also impact gene expression and function of other subsets of immune cells, as well as other cell types within the endometrium. Finally, the IOC device, while a major improvement over existing in vitro methods to study early pregnancy, does not include all possible maternal cells present during early pregnancy, which could impact functional effects seen. Immune cells other than uNK cells may impact invasion of EVTs in vitro and in vivo, though these remain to be tested.

Wider implications of the findings: These findings demonstrate that hormonal stimulation affects the distribution of uNK cells during the implantation window and reduces the proinvasive effects of uNK cells during early pregnancy. Our results provide a potential mechanism by which fresh IVF cycles may increase risk of disorders of placentation, previously linked to adverse perinatal outcomes.

Study funding/competing interest(s): Research reported in this publication was supported by the University of Pennsylvania University Research Funding (to M.M.), the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P50HD068157 to M.M., S.S., and S.M.), National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (TL1TR001880 to J.K.), the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute (to S.M.G.), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (K08AI151265 to S.M.G.). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. All authors declare no conflict of interest.

Trial registration number: N/A.

Keywords: ART; IVF; extravillous trophoblast; placenta; uterine immune cells.

© The Author(s) 2023. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com.

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