Progesterone promotes maternal-fetal tolerance by reducing human maternal T-cell polyfunctionality and inducing a specific cytokine profile

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Progesterone is a steroid hormone essential for the maintenance of human pregnancy, and its actions are thought to include promoting maternal immune tolerance of the semiallogenic fetus. We report that exposure of maternal T cells to progesterone at physiological doses induced a unique skewing of the cytokine production profile of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells, with reductions not only in potentially deleterious IFN-γ and TNF-α production but also in IL-10 and IL-5. Conversely, production of IL-4 was increased. Maternal T cells also became less polyfunctional, focussing cytokine production toward profiles including IL-4. This was accompanied by reduced T-cell proliferation. Using fetal and viral antigen-specific CD8+ T-cell clones, we confirmed that this as a direct, nonantigen-specific effect. Yet human T cells lacked conventional nuclear progesterone receptors, implicating a membrane progesterone receptor. CD4+ and CD8+ T cells responded to progesterone in a dose-dependent manner, with subtle effects at concentrations comparable to those in maternal blood, but profound effects at concentrations similar to those at the maternal–fetal interface. This characterization of how progesterone modulates T-cell function is important in understanding the normal biology of pregnancy and informing the rational use of progesterone therapy in pregnancies at risk of fetal loss.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2858-2872
Number of pages15
JournalEuropean Journal of Immunology
Issue number10
Early online date28 Aug 2015
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2015


  • Human, IL-4, Maternal–fetal tolerance, Progesterone, T cell