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J Immunol. Author manuscript; available in PMC Mar 1, 2010.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2752643
NIHMSID: NIHMS126940

Temporal Changes in Myeloid Cells in the Cervix during Pregnancy and Parturition

Abstract

Preterm birth occurs at a rate of 12.7% in the United States and is the primary cause of fetal morbidity in the first year of life as well as the cause of later health problems. Elucidation of mechanisms controlling cervical remodeling is critical for development of therapies to reduce the incidence of prematurity. The cervical extracellular matrix must be disorganized during labor to allow birth followed by a rapid repair postpartum. Leukocytes infiltrate the cervix prior to and after birth and are proposed to regulate matrix remodeling during cervical ripening via release of proteolytic enzymes. In the current study, flow cytometry and cell sorting were utilized to determine the role of immune cells in cervical matrix remodeling before, during, and after parturition. Markers of myeloid cell differentiation and activation were assessed to define phenotype and function. Tissue monocytes and eosinophils increased in the cervix prior to birth in a progesterone regulated fashion while macrophage numbers were unchanged. Neutrophils increased in the postpartum period. Increased mRNA expression of Csfr1 and markers of alternatively activated M2 macrophages during labor or shortly postpartum suggest a function of M2 macrophages in postpartum tissue repair. Changes in cervical myeloid cell numbers are not reflected in the peripheral blood. These data along with our previous studies suggest that myeloid derived cells do not orchestrate processes required for initiation of cervical ripening prior to birth. Additionally, macrophages with diverse phenotypes (M1 and M2) are present in the cervix and likely involved in the postpartum repair of tissue.

Introduction

Preterm birth is the number one cause of infant morbidity in the first year of life (1,2). Identification of the specific functions of immune cells in the normal parturition process is critical for understanding the causes of preterm birth. Parturition involves the coordination of two major events: uterine contractions and remodeling of the cervical extracellular matrix (ECM). The cervical ECM is comprised primarily of fibrilar collagen, proteoglycans, and elastin (3). The cervical collagen fibers maintain a structure that provides strength and rigidity to the tissue during pregnancy. During parturition, collagen fiber structure must be extensively altered to allow the cervix to open sufficiently for safe delivery of the fetus. The first phase of remodeling, termed softening, is gradual beginning with increased collagen solubility and increased tissue compliance (4). Cervical softening overlaps with an accelerated phase termed ripening at the end of pregnancy. In the mouse, ripening is preceded by a decline in progesterone synthesis and increase in progesterone metabolism and is characterized by further matrix disorganization, altered proteoglycan composition, and increased synthesis of hyaluronan, a space-filling glycosaminoglycan that promotes increased tissue viscoelasticity and loss of tissue integrity (57). Upon initiation of uterine contractions the cervix dilates and birth occurs. Immediately following parturition, a repair process is initiated in which inappropriately assembled matrix molecules must be removed as the cervix regains its rigidity and tensile strength.

The molecular processes that bring about the dramatic changes in the cervical matrix during parturition have been attributed to activation of the immune response system during ripening (814). Histological assessments of cervices from numerous species identify an increased migration of leukocytes into the cervical stroma matrix during ripening. This led to a model in which these cells release proteolytic enzymes, which in turn degrade ECM components leading to increased tissue compliance. Certainly, monocytes/macrophages have the capacity to generate large amounts of pro-inflammatory mediators, particularly TNFα (15). In addition, they generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) and enzymes which have the capacity to degrade the structure and integrity of tissue. Neutrophils also may be stimulated to release ROS and proteolytic enzymes (16,17). Therefore myeloid lineage cells could be important candidates orchestrating the structural changes occurring during pregnancy and labor. Moreover, determining the specific role that leukocytes play at each stage of cervical remodeling prior to and after birth may be important for understanding mechanisms leading to preterm birth.

Human studies have demonstrated that inflammatory cells migrate into the cervix and secrete proinflammatory cytokines at term. Nonetheless, it remains unclear as to whether leukocytes are required for ripening prior to birth or during postpartum repair of the cervix given variations in timing of tissue collection as well as numerous studies which question the necessity of functional neutrophils and the timing of macrophage activation relative to birth (12,1824). We have previously reported no change in macrophage distribution during ripening as compared to earlier in pregnancy though other studies suggest increases in macrophage numbers during ripening (11,24). The requirement for macrophage derived proteases in cervical ripening is unclear given the activity of collagenase, a proteolytic enzyme made by leukocytes, is not increased in the term cervix of numerous species (25,26). Moreover, exogenous collagenase treatment of rat cervices does not replicate the natural remodeling process (27).

To better define the role of myeloid cells at each phase of cervical remodeling prior to, during and after birth, we have measured myeloid infiltration and activation in the cervix during softening, ripening and postpartum (PP) phases. Using multi-parameter flow cytometry and cell sorting, the expression of multiple markers was analyzed simultaneously on mouse cervical immune cell populations during pregnancy, parturition, and postpartum. We demonstrate that eosinophils are increased in numbers at the time of labor. In addition, a progesterone regulated monocyte infiltration occurs in the cervix during ripening, and these cells are phenotypically distinct from the resident macrophage population. We also provide evidence that macrophages with phenotypes similar to classically activated proinflammatory M1 macrophages and alternatively activated M2 macrophages are both present in the cervix shortly after birth. These studies support a role of eosinophils in the final stages of labor or postpartum and they suggest the importance of macrophages in the postpartum phase of remodeling in clean up of the disorganized matrix and in the suppression of uncontrolled tissue damage thus promoting rapid and appropriate repair of the cervix back to the non-pregnant state.

Material and Methods

Mice

Steroid 5α-reductase type 1 deficient mice (Srd5a1−/−) were generated and genotyped as described previously (28). Timed pregnant NIH Swiss (Harlan, Indianapolis, IN), and HSD: ICR (CD-1 ®) (Harlan) were obtained from Jackson Laboratories, Bar Harbor, ME. C57BL6/129 SvEv timed matings were carried out in our colony by housing one male with four females in a cage from 5:00 PM to 8:00 AM. Females were checked at 8:00AM for vaginal plugs. Plug day was determined as day 0 and birth occurred in the early hours on d19. All studies were conducted in accordance with the standards of humane animal care described in the NIH Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals using protocols approved by an institutional animal care and research advisory committee.

Tissue Collection and Dispersal

Cervical tissue and blood were collected at midday for all days with the exception of gestation d18.75 which were collected after 6:30 PM and postpartum samples collected at time designated for each experiment. Peripheral blood was collected by submandibular bleeding using Goldenrod Animal Lancets (MEDIpoint, Inc., Mineola, NY). Cervices were isolated by transection at the utero-cervical junction (caudal to the uterine bifurcation) and all vaginal tissue removed. Cervical cells were dispersed by mincing fresh tissue and incubating each cervix in 5mls of buffer (2% FBS, 0.75% HEPES in PBS) with 200 μl Liberase Blendzyme 3 (Roche, Indianapolis, IN), 12.5 μl of a 1mg/ml DNAse I (Sigma, St. Louis, MO), and 10 TRU Hyaluronidase (Seikagaku, Tokyo, Japan) for 1.5h at 37°C. The tissue was manually pipetted every 30 min to improve dispersion. After incubation, the cells were passed three times through a syringe with an 18 gauge needle followed by three passes through a 23 gauge needle, filtered with 100μm Nitex (SEFAR, Depew, NY) and pelleted by centrifugation (500 × g, for 5 min at 4°C).

Staining Procedure

One hundred microliters of heparinized whole blood was pelleted in 96 well polypropylene plates at 1900 rpm for 2 min at 4°C. Each sample was stained with 100 μl of diluted antibodies for 30 min on ice as described below. Cervical cells were stained in 96 well polypropylene plates (Greiner Bio-One, Monroe, NC). Dispersed cells from each cervix were pipetted into separate wells and the plate was centrifuged (600 × g for 1 min at 4°C). Cells and reagents were kept on ice for the remainder of the experiment. Cell suspensions were washed with staining buffer and suspended in Fc-block (mAb 24G2) (BD Biosciences (San Jose, CA)) together with a combination of up to 6 directly conjugated fluorescent antibodies and 1 biotinylated antibody as described previously (29). (Neutrophil 7/4-PE and Neutrophil 7/4-biotin (Serotec, Raleigh, NC), F4/80-APC, CD45-PE-Cy7, CD11b-Pacific Blue, CD4-PE, CD8-PECy5, CD3-Pacific Blue and/or CD19-biotin (eBiosciences)), and Gr-1 (Ly6C/Ly6G) -APC-Cy7, Siglec F- PE, and Ly6G-FITC (BD Biosciences). Cells were incubated for 30min in the dark on ice. Cells were washed 3 times in staining buffer and then incubated in Streptavidin QDot655 (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA) at 1:600 dilution of stock for 30mins in the dark. Red blood cell lysis and cellular fixation was completed using BD Facs Lysing solution (BD Biosciences). Cells were washed as above and samples were maintained in 1% paraformaldehyde and run within 24hr on a BD Biosciences LSRII flow cytometer using BD FACSDiva (BD Biosciences) software and analyzed with FloJo 7.1 analysis software (Tree Star, Ashland, OR). Cells were sorted on a Beckman Coulter MoFlow Cell Sorter (Beckman Coulter, Fullerton, CA), cytospun onto slides and stained with a HEMA 3® Stain Set (Fisher, Middletown, VA) according to manufacturer’s protocols.

Quantitative real time PCR

Total RNA was extracted from frozen mouse tissue using RNA Stat 60 (Tel-Test “B” Inc., Friendswood, Texas). Subsequently, total RNA was treated with DNAse I to remove any genomic DNA using DNA-free (Ambion Inc., Austin, Texas). CDNA synthesis was performed per manufacturer’s protocols (TaqMan cDNA synthesis kit, Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA). Quantitative real time PCR was performed using SYBR Green and a PRISM7900HT Sequence Detection System (Applied Biosystems). Aliquots (20 ng) of cDNA were used for each quantitative PCR reaction, and each reaction was run in triplicate. Each gene was normalized to the expression of the housekeeping gene cyclophillin B and relative expression was calculated using the average of the d18.75 cervices as the external calibrator in the ddCt method as described in User Bulletin #2 (Applied Biosystems). Data are presented as the average relative gene expression ± SEM.

ELISA

Frozen tissues (3–6 animals for each time point) were homogenized in 0.01M PBS with 10% proteinase inhibitor (Sigma). The samples were then sonicated on ice for 2 × 5 seconds and centrifuged at 15,000 × g, 4°C, for 20 min. IL10, M-CSF, IL13 (R&D Systems, Minneapolis, MN), and IL4 (eBiosciences) were analyzed in supernatants by commercially available ELISA kits and used according to manufacturer’s instruction. Absorbance was read at 450nm using a Safire 2 microplate reader (Tecan, San Jose, CA). Tissue cytokine levels were expressed relative to total protein as determined by the bichonic acid assay (Thermo Scientific, Rockford, IL).

Protein blotting

Mouse cervical extracts were prepared by homogenization in 0.01M PBS containing 3% protease inhibitor (catalog no. 2714; Sigma, St. Louis, MO). Forty microgramsof protein was diluted in 2× Lammeli buffer (Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA), boiled for 5 min, and run on a 10% reducing Tris-HCl gel (Bio-Rad) along with protein size standards (Precision Plus Protein Kaleidoscope, Bio-Rad). Proteins were transferred to nitrocellulose membrane (Pall Corporation, Pensacola, FL). Nonspecific antibody binding was blocked by an overnight incubation with Tris-buffered saline with Tween20 (TBST) [10 mm Tris (pH7.5), 150 mM NaCl, and 0.05% Tween 20] containing 3% nonfat dry milk. Blots were then incubated for 2 h with the primary antibody, YM1 (StemCell Technologies Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada) (1:1000) in blocking solution, washed in TBST, incubated with horseradish peroxidase-labeled antirabbit IgG (1:10,000) (Jackson Immunoresearch Laboratories, West Grove, PA) for 45 min, and washed again in TBST. Chemiluminescence detection was performed using the ECL Western Blotting Analysis System (GE Healthcare, Buckinghampshire, UK.). A rabbit polyclonal anti-Calnexin antibody(Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Santa Cruz, CA) (1:1000) was used as a loading control. This experiment was conductedusing protein extracts from three to nine animals per time point.

Statistics

Data were analyzed using one-way analysis of variance with pairwise multiple comparisons performed with Tukey test for data normally distributed. Non-parametric methods were employed for non-normal data. This included the Kruskal-Wallis test for one-way analysis of variance with multiple comparisons using Dunn’s method. P<0.05 are considered statistically significant. Data are displayed as mean + SEM. Data analyses were performed using Sigma Stat V2.03 (SPSS, Chicago, IL).

Results

Monocyte and eosinophil but not neutrophil or macrophage numbers are increased prior to parturition

Approximately 10–20% of cervical cells expressed the pan leukocyte marker, CD45 (data not shown). The population of cervical cells that expressed CD45 was assessed for Gr1, Ly6G, Neutrophil (Neu) 7/4, F4/80, CD11b, CD11c, and Siglec-F expression in order to distinguish tissue monocytes, neutrophils, macrophages, eosinophils and dendritic cells. The identities of some populations were further confirmed by visualization of cell morphology after cell sorting and staining with a modified Wrights stain. Neutrophils, defined as Gr1++, Neu 7/4+, were observed in the cervix prior to cervical ripening [gestation day 15 (d15)] and did not significantly increase until 2–4h postpartum (PP) (Fig. 1) (2931). Monocytes, defined as Gr1+/− and Neu 7/4++, significantly increased in numbers between d15 and late on gestation day 18 (d18.75) (30,31). The high numbers of monocytes remained throughout labor and PP (Fig. 1). Macrophages, defined as F4/80++, Neu 7/4 were present in the cervix prior to (d15) and during (d18.75) cervical ripening and 2–4 hours PP with no significant change in numbers during this period (Fig. 2) (30,31). Cell morphology of all three myeloid cell types was consistent with phenotypes defined using expression markers in flow cytometry (Fig 1 and and2).2). In addition to neutrophils, monocytes, and macrophages, another distinct myeloid population was identified as Neu 7/4low, F4/80low shown in (Fig 2A). Based on cell morphology and Siglec-F++ expression (Fig 2A and 2B), the cells were identified as eosinophils (3234). These cells, were recruited to the cervix by d18.75 with a statistically significant increase during labor (IL) (Fig 2E). The eosinophil subset was further shown to be distinct from neutrophils based on both low Neu 7/4 and Gr1 staining (Fig 2C) and absence of neutrophil specific Ly6G expression (Fig 2D) (35). Dendritic cells were also evaluated and were identified as F480, CD11c+, CD11b+/− with no significant changes during gestation or postpartum (data not shown).

FIGURE 1
Cervical tissue monocytes but not neutrophils increase prior to parturition. Cervical suspensions were stained with anti-CD45, -Gr1, and -Neutrophil 7/4. (Panel A) Leukocytes were gated on CD45 and further analyzed on the Neu 7/4 versus Gr1 dot plot. ...
FIGURE 2
Eosinophils are increased during labor while macrophage numbers do not significantly change during pregnancy or PP. Cervical suspensions were stained with anti-CD45, F4/80, Siglec-F, Ly6G, Gr1, and Neu7/4. (Panel A) Leukocytes were gated through CD45. ...

Recruitment of monocytes is dependent on steroid hormone environment

Loss of progesterone hormone action precedes onset of parturition in humans and numerous animal species (36,37). Our previous studies have described a lack of migration of Neu 7/4+ cells into the cervical stroma of a cervical ripening defective model, the Srd5a1 null mouse, in which cervical tissue progesterone levels are elevated on gestation day 18.75 (24). Cervical tissue from this mouse model was utilized to determine if the recruitment of myeloid cells that occurs in the term cervix is progesterone dependent. Monocytes, neutrophils, and eosinophils were significantly lower in the knockout mouse cervix at d18.75 when analyzed by flow cytometry though macrophage numbers were unchanged (Fig. 3A). To further demonstrate the effect of progesterone on leukocyte recruitment, the progesterone receptor antagonist, ZK98299 (Onapristone; Shering Corp., Kenilworth, NJ), was administered to pregnant WT mice on gestation d15 and myeloid cell populations were identified by flow cytometry after 13 hours of treatment. Blocking progesterone action with agonist treatment causes premature cervical ripening in human and other species and the agonist ZK98299 has previously been shown to cause a premature infiltration of leukocytes into the cervical stroma (24,37). In the current study, ZK98299 treatment resulted in a significant increase in both monocytes and eosinophils (Fig. 3B). Taken together, these studies suggest that progesterone withdrawal which normally begins prior to cervical ripening is required for appropriate migration of specific myeloid cell populations into the cervix.

FIGURE 3
Migration of tissue monocytes and eosinophils is dependent on the withdrawal of progesterone. (Panel A) Flow cytometry was used to identify changes in myeloid cell numbers in the cervix from wild type (WT) and a cervical ripening defective mouse Srd5a1 ...

mRNA expression of genes associated with macrophage differentiation and activation are upregulated after parturition

A decline in progesterone action is required for the migration of monocytes and eosinophils into the cervical matrix during cervical ripening. Identification of the timing and regulation of macrophage differentiation before or after birth is necessary to understand the role of these inflammatory cells in cervical ripening/dilation and/or in the postpartum tissue repair of the cervix. Colony stimulating factor 1 (Csf1) expressed in various cell types such as fibroblasts and endothelial cells and its receptor, Csf1r, expressed by all mononuclear phagocytes and some epithelial cells are upregulated during the differentiation of monocytes to macrophages and is an important factor in normal macrophage function in the uterus (3841). CSF protein and Csf1r mRNA was measured by ELISA and quantitative real time PCR (QRTPCR) respectively to determine expression in cervical tissue during pregnancy, parturition, and PP repair (Fig. 4). CSF1 expression was highest at gestation day 15 and then declined during cervical ripening (d18.75) and postpartum. The receptor was expressed at all time points though maximal expression was observed 2–4h postpartum. Significant upregulation of Csf1r by 2h PP suggests an increase in the differentiation commitment of the monocytes to macrophages pathway occurs once labor has begun and/or during postpartum recovery period. Transcripts encoding Csf2 were low to undetectable in the cervix in contrast to Csf1 (Data not shown).

FIGURE 4
Expression of colony stimulating factor 1 and colony stimulating factor 1 receptor in the cervix. ELISA or quantitative real time PCR was performed to determine the change in CSF1 protein and Csf1r mRNA expression, respectively. CSF1 protein expression ...

Gene expression patterns support a role of alternatively activated M2-polarized macrophages during postpartum cervical tissue repair

As described in Figure 2, macrophage numbers are unchanged during cervical ripening, parturition and postpartum. Macrophage phenotypes are heterogeneous and are influenced by changes in the tissue microenvironment (31,42). Polarization of macrophages into either M1 or M2 subpopulations within a microenvironment can influence their function. In previous studies from our laboratory we observed an upregulation of genes associated with classically activated (M1) macrophages after birth during postpartum repair of the cervix such as Il1a, Tnfa and Mcp1 (24). In the current study we sought to determine if the increased tissue monocyte population in the cervix during ripening is followed by an upregulation of genes associated with alternatively activated M2 macrophages which along with M1 macrophage subpopulations may also contribute to the tissue repair phase of remodeling. M2 macrophages express arginase 1 (Arg1), chitinase 3-like 3 (Chi3l3,Ym1), interleukin 1 receptor antagonist (Il1ra), interleukin 13 receptor alpha 1 (Il13ra1) and transforming growth factor beta (Tgfb). Expression of these genes was evaluated in the mouse cervix by QRTPCR. As described in Figure 5, expression of Il13ra1, Arg1 and Il1ra was significantly upregulated postpartum. Ym1 expression was increased in labor and remained elevated postpartum while Tgfb had variable expression late on gestation d18 and a significant increase was observed between d15 and term, not in labor (NIL). YM1 protein expression was similar to mRNA expression increasing PP (Fig. 6). In contrast to induction of M2 macrophage gene expression markers in the cervix, the expression of these genes was low to undetectable in the fetal membranes on gestation days 15, 18.75 and 19 NIL (data not shown). This data, along with our previous studies reporting increased expression of genes expressed by classically activated M1 macrophages, suggest that M2 macrophages play little role in remodeling of fetal membranes during parturition.

FIGURE 5
Quantitative real time PCR analysis of genes expressed by alternatively activated (M2) macrophages. Expression of interleukin 13 receptor alpha 1 (IL13ra1), arginase 1 (Arg1), and interleukin 1 receptor antagonist (IL1ra) was significantly upregulated ...
FIGURE 6
Temporal changes in protein expression of YM1. Western blot containing 40 μg of total cervical protein from gestation day 15, 18.75, in labor (IL), 2–4h and 1d postpartum (PP) was probed with anti-YM1 antibody (upper panel). YM1 protein ...

Characterization of myeloid cells in peripheral blood during pregnancy and postpartum

To determine if changes in myeloid cell populations observed in cervical tissue during pregnancy and parturition was similarly reflected in peripheral blood, staining for myeloid markers was carried out using whole blood obtained from mice before, during, and after cervical ripening. Neutrophil numbers were significantly increased PP similar to the pattern in the cervix (Fig. 7). In contrast, monocyte numbers in peripheral blood did not change during pregnancy or postpartum suggesting quantification of these cell types in blood is not reflective of local changes in the cervix during ripening, dilation, and PP repair.

FIGURE 7
Myeloid cells in the peripheral blood do not parallel temporal changes in the cervix. Cells were stained with anti-CD45, -Gr1, -Neutrophil 7/4, and –F4/80. Neutrophil but not monocytes are increased in the blood postpartum (PP). Data represents ...

Discussion

Temporal changes in immune cell phenotype during pregnancy, parturition and postpartum (PP) in the mouse cervix reveal dynamic and multifaceted functions of inflammatory cells during cervical remodeling. The data from this study suggest that the contribution of macrophages to matrix remodeling predominates in the (PP) tissue repair phase of remodeling rather than the cervical ripening phase prior to birth while eosinophils may contribute to cervical dilation or postpartum repair. Matrix remodeling of the cervix in preparation for birth requires extensive disorganization of the collagen rich matrix while postpartum remodeling requires removal of inappropriately assembled matrix molecules that contribute to matrix disarray. Appropriate and efficient postpartum remodeling is necessary to protect the entire reproductive tract from pathogens and to allow subsequent pregnancy. This work advances our understanding of the presence and contribution of myeloid cells to specific phases of cervical remodeling.

Cervical tissue monocytes are increased in number during cervical ripening and this migration is dependent on the withdrawal of progesterone. Both morphology and surface marker expression (Neutrophil 7/4++ and F4/80+) of these cells are similar to blood monocytes and distinct from macrophages (Neutrophil 7/4 and F4/80+) (43). In contrast to the cervix, monocytes in blood were not increased during cervical ripening indicative that changes in this tissue are not reflected in the peripheral blood. Since perfusion of mice at gestation d18.75 did not alter the retrieval of monocytes, it is unlikely that changes in monocytes arise from alterations in the cervical vasculature, and therefore the increases are a real determination of the changes within the tissue (data not shown).

While monocytes are increased during cervical ripening and CSF1 is expressed during pregnancy, the mRNA expression of the monocyte to macrophage differentiation factor receptor Csf1r, as well as gene markers specific for both polarized activation states of macrophage were not upregulated until labor began and/or postpartum. This would suggest an increase in monocyte to macrophage differentiation during labor and PP. The recruitment of monocytes to cervix, however, was not followed by an increase in macrophage numbers presumably due to the increased turnover of activated macrophages during this process.

Macrophages show significant heterogeneity in function as the microenvironment influences their properties and activation state (42,44). Macrophage activation can be described as a continuum between two different polarization phenotypes, M1 and M2. Numerous biological systems exist in which both macrophage subsets coexist and a shift in the balance of the two subsets occurs upon changes in physiological or pathophysiological conditions (4547). The M1s are classically activated by proinflammatory mediators such as LPS and IFNγ and produce proinflammatory cytokines such as IL-6, IL-12, and TNFα (42,44). In contrast, M2 macrophages termed “alternatively activated” are activated by IL-4 or IL-13 and express anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10 and TGFβ along with IL1 receptor antagonist (IL1ra) and YM1. M2 macrophages also produce arginase 1 (Arg1) which reduces the amount of the substrate arginine required for NO production and increases the production of ornithine necessary for collagen synthesis. M2 macrophages, therefore, are involved in down regulation of the inflammatory response and help promote tissue repair.

While macrophages are present in the cervix prior to cervical ripening (gestation day 15), it is of interest that neither M1 nor M2 markers are expressed at this time. Similar to the recently described endometrial NK cell that is present but inactive until pregnancy, these macrophages may be a unique subset of cells that are inactive or inert until parturition or else infection ensues (48). Our previous studies report an upregulation of proinflammatory cytokines – IL-1a and TNFa as well as chemoattractants (MCP-1) in the cervix as early as two hours after birth (24). This would suggest that M1 macrophages are present at this time. More recently we have determined little to no mRNA expression of Ifng, Il6, Il12 and iNos in the cervix before or after birth (data not shown) suggesting that M1 “proinflammatory” macrophages may play a minor role in remodeling either during cervical ripening or PP. Upregulation of Ym1, Arg1, and Il13ra1 mRNA and protein expression in labor and PP from this investigation suggests that M2 macrophages are also present in the PP cervix. The expression of CSF1 in the cervix may also predispose recruited monocytes or resident macrophages towards the M2 phenotype as has been described in other systems (44,49). Flow cytometry using surface markers specific for M1 and M2 macrophages will be required to quantify the relative numbers of M1 versus M2 macrophages in postpartum remodeling.

M2 macrophages may be activated by IL-13 or Il-4. IL-13 expression in the cervix, was low to undetectable (data not shown) in whole tissue protein extracts. Furthermore, neither IL 4 nor the immunosuppressive cytokine IL10 were detectable in the cervix during ripening or postpartum emphasizing the fact that macrophage phenotypes are distinct within the cervix microenvironment when compared to macrophages in other tissues. A mixed population of macrophages displaying phenotypes across both polarization states may have evolved to ensure optimal postpartum cervical remodeling. We hypothesize that M1s would be necessary to protect against microorganism invasion during delivery as well as facilitate removal of ECM components while macrophages with a polarized activation state similar to M2 would function to suppress excessive proinflammatory responses and to promote tissue repair.

Evidence for the contribution of both M1 and M2 polarized macrophages to maintenance of pregnancy and parturition is mounting. Macrophages present in first trimester human decidua express markers of M2 polarized macrophages consistent with their role in immune tolerance at the maternal-fetal interface (45). In contrast, remodeling of the fetal membranes during parturition may require primarily an M1 activation phenotype. Increased expression of proinflammatory genes occurs in term fetal membranes (Il1a, Ccl3, Tnf and Cxcl2) (24). More recently we have evaluated the expression of Ym1, Arg1 and Il1ra in gestation d18.75 fetal membranes and found little to no expression of these M2 marker genes (data not shown). At the end of pregnancy the fetal membranes undergo remodeling resulting in rapid loss of tensile strength and membrane rupture (50). Since fetal membranes need not be preserved once parturition is complete, we speculate that the immunosuppressive and repair actions of M2 macrophages are unnecessary as compared to the cervix whose integrity must be rapidly regained. Tissue specific macrophage phenotypes are required for maintenance of pregnancy and successful parturition and clearly emphasize the varied functions of immune cells in this critical process.

The increase in cervical eosinophils during labor that was observed in this study has previously been described and is preceded by an increased expression of the eosinophil chemoattractant, eotaxin (10,14,24). While classically thought to be involved in host protection against parasites, eosinophils more recently are appreciated to be multifunctional leukocytes involved in inflammatory responses as well as modulators of innate and adaptive immunity (51). Eosinophils are a prevalent cell population in the female reproductive tract, are regulated by steroid hormones and thought to be important in uterine preparation for pregnancy (51,52). While their presence in the cervix at the time of labor may have a function in late stages of remodeling, their functions are not essential to this process as mice depleted of eosinophils (eotaxin null mice) have normal parturition (52). Further studies are required to appreciate the specific functions eosinophils may play in cervical remodeling.

These findings propose a paradigm shift from the idea that inflammatory cells orchestrate changes in the extracellular matrix required for initiation of cervical ripening. During cervical ripening, monocytes extravasate to the cervical tissue in a progesterone regulated manner and after a delay of several hours this influx is followed by increased gene or protein expression of M2 polarized macrophage markers and to a lesser extent M1 polarized macrophage markers during labor or within a few hours postpartum. These data support a model in which macrophage recruitment and heterogeneity facilitate efficient recovery and repair of the cervix after birth thus ensuring protection of the entire reproductive tract from microbial infection and the ability to initiate and maintain a subsequent pregnancy. Future studies will focus on identifying progesterone regulated factors that allow monocyte migration to the cervix during ripening and studies to better understand the relative contributions of both alternatively activated M2 and classically activated M1 macrophages to postpartum cervical remodeling.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Ms. Angela Mobley for her invaluable assistance with the flow cytometry and cell sorting. We thank Dr. Petra Cravens and Dr. David Farrar for their helpful discussions and critical reading of the manuscript. The technical assistance of Monika Ruschiensky and Joseph Davis is also gratefully acknowledged.

This work is supported by NIH R01 HD043154 (M.S.M.).

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