BACKGROUND: Although the immune system intuitively must have an important role in embryo implantation and in the achievement of a pregnancy, the molecular details have for long been controversial. The role of the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system has been debated. The unique HLA expression profile of the HLA Class Ia molecule HLA-C and the HLA Class Ib molecules HLA-E, HLA-F and HLA-G at the feto-maternal interface is now recognized. However, HLA Class Ib molecules may also have a role in embryo implantation and pregnancy success.
OBJECTIVE AND RATIONALE: The aim of this review was to evaluate the literature and recent discoveries on the role of the non-polymorphic HLA Class Ib molecules with a focus on HLA-F and HLA-G molecules at the time of implantation, including the interaction with uterine immune cells through the specific receptors immunoglobulin-like transcript 2 (ILT2), ILT4 and a number of killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs), and the importance of HLA-F and HLA-G genetic variation that influences fertility and time-to-pregnancy.
SEARCH METHODS: Drawing on recent advances in basic and clinical studies, we performed a narrative review of the scientific literature to provide a timely update on the role of HLA Class Ib in embryo implantation, fertility and infertility. Pertinent studies were searched in PubMed/Medline using relevant key words.
OUTCOMES: Both HLA-F and HLA-G interact with inhibitory or activating ILT2 or ILT4 receptors and KIRs on uterine immune cells, especially uterine natural killer (NK) cells that are highly abundant in the mid-secretory endometrium and in early pregnancy. The binding of HLA-G to ILT2 stimulates the secretion of growth-promoting factors from decidual NK cells. However, functional aspects of a HLA-F-receptor interaction remain to be clarified. Recent studies indicate that HLA-F and HLA-G are expressed in mid-secretory endometrium and HLA-G is expressed in the blastocyst. HLA-F fluctuates during the menstrual cycle with high levels during the implantation window. The level of HLA-F protein expression correlates with the number of CD56-positive NK cells in the mid-secretory endometrium. HLA-F and HLA-G gene polymorphisms, including a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in a progesterone-responsive element, are associated with time-to-pregnancy. Depending on the SNP genotype, the effect of progesterone varies resulting in differences in HLA-F expression and thereby the interaction with receptors on the uterine NK cells. Studies suggest that the expression of HLA-G and HLA-F, both by the embryonic-derived trophoblast cells and by cells in the endometrium and decidua, and the interaction between HLA-G and HLA-F with specific receptors on uterine immune cells, stimulate and facilitate embryo implantation and placentation by secretion of growth factors, cytokines and angiogenic factors.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS: A detailed understanding of the molecular mechanisms controlling the expression of HLA-F and HLA-G periconceptionally and in early pregnancy may improve the success of ART and holds promise for further insight into pathophysiological aspects of certain pregnancy complications.