Uterine natural killer cell biology and role in early pregnancy establishment and outcomes

Narrative Review

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 4, P265-286, OCTOBER 01, 2021


Jessica R. Kanter, M.D., MSTR, Sneha Mani, Ph.D., Scott M. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Monica Mainigi, M.D.



While immune cells were originally thought to only play a role in maternal tolerance of the semiallogenic fetus, an active role in pregnancy establishment is becoming increasingly apparent. Uterine natural killer (uNK) cells are of specific interest because of their cyclic increase in number during the window of implantation. As a distinct entity from their peripheral blood counterparts, understanding the biology and function of uNK cells will provide the framework for understanding their role in early pregnancy establishment and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Evidence Review

This review discusses unique uNK cell characteristics and presents clinical implications resulting from their dysfunction. We also systematically present existing knowledge about uNK cell function in three processes critical for successful human embryo implantation and placentation: stromal cell decidualization, spiral artery remodeling, and extravillous trophoblast invasion. Finally, we review the features of uNK cells that could help guide future investigations.


It is clear the uNK cells are intimately involved in multiple facets of early pregnancy. This is accomplished directly, through the secretion of factors that regulate stromal cells and trophoblast function; and indirectly ,via interaction with other maternal cell types present at the maternal-fetal interface. Current work also suggests that uNK cells are a heterogenous population, with subsets that potentially accomplish different functions.


Establishment of pregnancy through successful embryo implantation and placentation requires crosstalk between multiple maternal cell types and invading fetal trophoblast cells. Defects in this process have been associated with multiple adverse perinatal outcomes including hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, placenta accreta, and recurrent miscarriage though the mechanism underlying development of these defects remain unclear. Abnormalities in NK cell number and function which would disrupt physiological maternal-fetal crosstalk, could play a critical role in abnormal implantation and placentation. It is therefore imperative to dissect the unique physiological role of uNK cells in pregnancy and use this knowledge to inform clinical practice by determining how uNK cell dysfunction could lead to reproductive failure.