King's researchers publish Nature paper on immune cells in pregnancy

NK cells in womb tissue

King's Fellows Ashley Moffett and Francesco Colucci have just published a Communication in Nature showing the importance of Natural Killer (NK) cells during pregnancy.

NK cells are a type of white blood cell that attacks virus-infected cells and tumour cells. They are abundant in the womb during pregnancy but their role is poorly understood.

Since the fetus and placenta have only half the mother's genes then you might guess that the NK cells would attack them as potential trespassers. But the new paper shows the opposite seems to be the case, and that NK cells actually help the growth of the fetus.

Francesco, Ashley and their team (research associate Jens Kieckbusch and graduate student Louise Gaynor) at the Centre for Trophoblast Research, University of Cambridge, looked at the effect of suppressing NK cell production in womb tissue. The result was a reduction in size of blood vessels from mother to fetus, and reduced fetal growth.

So NK cells appear critical in remodelling blood vessels and other womb tissues to promote the healthy growth of a baby. For details see the Nature Communications paper.

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation and the Centre for Trophoblast Research.

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3 March 2014