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Biol Reprod. 2005 Dec;73(6):1253-63. Epub 2005 Aug 10.

Immunological microenvironments in the human vagina and cervix: mediators of cellular immunity are concentrated in the cervical transformation zone.

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  • 1Fearing Research Laboratory, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Cell-mediated immunity (CMI) is key to defense against intracellular pathogens such as Chlamydia trachomatis and viruses that infect the lower female genital tract, but little is known about CMI at this site. Recent studies indicate that there are immunological microenvironments within the female genital tract, and that immune functions are affected by hormones as well as infections and inflammatory processes. To determine the distribution of mediators of CMI within the lower female genital tract, we have enumerated and characterized T-lymphocyte subsets and natural killer and antigen presenting cells (APCs; macrophages and dendritic cells) in the introitus, vagina, ectocervix, endocervix and cervical transformation zone (TZ) from healthy women, and have examined the effects of the menstrual cycle, menopause and inflammation on these parameters. In women without inflammation, T cells and APCs were most prevalent in the cervical TZ and surrounding tissue. Intraepithelial lymphocytes were predominantly CD8+ T cell+; most CD8+ cells in the TZ and endocervix, and a proportion of cells in the ectocervix, expressed T-cell internal antigen-1, a marker of cytotoxic potential. In contrast, the normal vaginal mucosa contained few T cells and APCs. Cervicitis and vaginitis cases had increased numbers of intraepithelial CD8+ and CD4+ lymphocytes and APCs. The menstrual cycle and menopause had no apparent effect on cellular localization or abundance in any of the lower genital tract tissues. These data indicate that the cervix, especially the TZ, is the major inductive and effector site for CMI in the lower female genital tract. Because CD4+ T cells and APCs are primary host cells for human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), these data also provide further evidence that the cervix is a primary infection site of HIV-1, and that inflammation increases the risk of HIV transmission.

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