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The University of Southampton

New study to assess how the the immune system impacts on a woman’s success of having a baby

Published: 30 January 2020
Baby bump

Scientists at the University of Southampton are to investigate what impact the cells within the immune system can have on a woman’s chances of having a baby.

A woman becomes pregnant when a fertilised egg implants itself into the lining of the mother’s womb.

Natural killer (NK) cells are cells of the innate immune system and within the womb, they are key regulators of implantation. During implantation, the outer layer of cells in the developing embryo invade the womb’s lining to gain the nutrients needed to grow. Specialised communication between the cells of embryo and NK cells in the mother’s womb determine the depth of invasion of the embryo; too much invasion leads to abnormal placental attachment, too little leads to miscarriages and pre-eclampsia. Specific combinations of interactions between maternal and fetal tissue have been shown to affect the outcome of a pregnancy.


Dr. Bonnie Ng at the University of Southampton has been awarded a three-year MRC Clinical Research Training Fellowship to study the interaction between NK cells within the mother’s womb and fetal tissue.

Dr. Bonnie Ng
Dr. Bonnie Ng

She will use endometrium samples from women who have reproductive failures taken during the ‘implantation window’, a specific time point during a menstrual cycle in which the womb is programmed to respond and prepare for a possible pregnancy. From this, she will explore the pattern of NK cell receptors in the womb and the impact of specific peptides, derived from certain proteins, which have the potential to activate NK cells.

“Having a baby is a magical experience for lots of people,” Bonnie said. “But, sadly, for so many people, they are unable to get pregnant or experience repeated miscarriages. In a significant proportion of cases, the underlying cause is unknown.

“This new study will bring together immunology and reproductive medicine, so we can gain valuable insight into the interactions between the mother’s NK cells in the womb and specific peptides. This will help us understand the immunological mechanisms of healthy implantation and placental development and may help in the development of new therapies or target patients to specific treatments.”

The project builds on Professor Salim Khakoo's world-leading expertise in understanding mechanisms of NK cell recognition and will be jointly supervised by himself and Professor Ying Cheong, who is known for her expertise in translational research in endometrial biology and implantation. For this project, Bonnie will also be working with Dr Andrew Sharkey and Professor Ashley Moffett from the University of Cambridge.

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