Biology and pathology of the uterine microenvironment and its natural killer cells.
Tissues are the new frontier of discoveries in immunology. Cells of the immune system are an integral part of tissue physiology and immunity. Determining how immune cells inhabit, housekeep, and defend gut, lung, brain, liver, uterus, and other organs helps revealing the intimate details of tissue physiology and may offer new therapeutic targets to treat pathologies. The uterine microenvironment modulates the development and function of innate lymphoid cells [ILC, largely represented by natural killer (NK) cells], macrophages, T cells, and dendritic cells. These immune cells, in turn, contribute to tissue homeostasis. Regulated by ovarian hormones, the human uterine mucosa (endometrium) undergoes ~400 monthly cycles of breakdown and regeneration from menarche to menopause, with its fibroblasts, glands, blood vessels, and immune cells remodeling the tissue into the transient decidua. Even more transformative changes occur upon blastocyst implantation. Before the placenta is formed, the endometrial glands feed the embryo by histiotrophic nutrition while the uterine spiral arteries are stripped of their endothelial layer and smooth muscle actin. This arterial remodeling is carried out by invading fetal trophoblast and maternal immune cells, chiefly uterine NK (uNK) cells, which also assist fetal growth. The transformed arteries no longer respond to maternal stimuli and meet the increasing demands of the growing fetus. This review focuses on how the everchanging uterine microenvironment affects uNK cells and how uNK cells regulate homeostasis of the decidua, placenta development, and fetal growth. Determining these pathways will help understand the causes of major pregnancy complications.