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J Mol Med (Berl). 2005 Feb;83(2):88-96. Epub 2004 Dec 17.

Tolerance, suppression and the fetal allograft.

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  • 1Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Medical Research Council, University of Cambridge, Hills Road, Cambridge, CB2 2QH, UK.


In solid organ transplantation the recipient immune system recognises foreign alloantigens expressed by the graft. This results in an immune attack of the transplanted organ leading to rejection, which can be prevented only by therapeutic immunosuppression. During pregnancy the fetus should also be rejected by the maternal immune system, since it expresses antigens derived from the father. Whilst the immune system retains the ability to respond to foreign antigen, tolerance mechanisms ensure that inappropriate responses against self-antigen are prevented. Maternal immune aggression directed against the fetus is partly inhibited by peripheral tolerance mechanisms that act locally to deplete cells capable of attacking the fetus. Other local mechanisms inhibit the pathways that cause tissue damage after immune activation. Recent studies in mice and humans indicate that the maternal immune system undergoes a more systemic change that promotes materno-fetal tolerance. Naturally occurring regulatory T cells, which are commonly associated with maintaining tolerance to self-antigens, can also suppress maternal allo-responses targeted against the fetus. We review the mechanisms that mediate materno-fetal tolerance, with particular emphasis on changes in regulatory T cell function during pregnancy and discuss their implications.

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