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Progesterone During Pregnancy: Endocrine–Immune Cross Talk in Mammalian Species and the Role of Stress


Julia Szekeres Bartho, MD, PhD, Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, Medical School, Pecs University, 12 Szigeti Str., H-7643 Pecs, Hungary.


Progesterone is critical for the establishment and the maintenance of pregnancy, both by its endocrine and immunological effects. The genomic actions of progesterone are mediated by the intracellular progesterone receptors; A and B. A protein called P-induced blocking factor (PIBF), by inducing a TH2 dominant cytokine production, mediates the immunological effects of progesterone. Progesterone plays a role in uterine homing of NK cells and up-regulates HLA-G gene expression, the ligand for various NK inhibitory receptors. At high concentrations progesterone is a potent inducer of Th2-type cytokines as well as of LIF and M-CSF production by T cells. Though a key role for progesterone in creating local immunosuppression has been conserved during the evolution of an epitheliochorial placenta, there has been some divergence in the pattern of endocrine-immunological cross talk in Bovidae. In sheep, uterine serpin, a progesterone-induced endometrial protein, mediates the immunosuppressive effects of progesterone. Epidemiological studies suggest the role of stress in premature pregnancy termination and exposure to stress induces abortion in mice via a significant reduction in progesterone levels, accompanied by reduced serum levels of PIBF. These effects are corrected by progesterone supplementation. These findings indicate the significance of a progesterone-dependent immuno-modulation in maternal tolerance of the fetus, which is discussed in this review.