Natural Killer Cells and Fertility

Natural Killer Cells and Fertility: Unravelling the Connection

Natural Killer (NK) cells, a type of lymphocyte, are integral players in the human immune system, providing a rapid response to virally infected cells and tumours. However, their role extends beyond defence, deeply influencing reproductive health and fertility, particularly through their presence in the uterus. 

The Role of Natural Killer Cells in the Uterus 

In the context of fertility, uterine NK (uNK) cells are critical. Unlike their blood counterparts, uNK cells exhibit unique properties and behaviours essential for a successful pregnancy. They make up a significant portion of the immune cells in the uterine lining during early pregnancy, contributing to the remodelling of blood vessels, creating a nurturing environment for embryonic implantation and placental development.

Natural Killer Cells and Implantation

The implantation of an embryo into the uterine lining is a complex process, influenced significantly by the presence and activity of uNK cells. Proper regulation and function of these cells support the alteration of uterine blood vessels, ensuring a sufficient blood supply to the developing embryo. This process, known as decidualisation, is critical for the establishment and sustenance of pregnancy. 

Natural Killer Cells and Recurrent Miscarriage

Research highlights the potential link between abnormal NK cell activity and reproductive challenges, such as recurrent miscarriages and implantation failures. Elevated levels of NK cells or abnormal activity may result in an overly aggressive immune response, attacking the embryo or disrupting the implantation process.

Controversy and Ongoing Research

Despite the established connection, the exact role of NK cells in fertility remains a topic of debate. Some studies suggest that elevated NK cell levels in peripheral blood or the uterine lining are associated with infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss. In contrast, others argue that NK cells' role is more complex and not solely responsible for these issues.

Therapeutic Approaches

Addressing NK cell-related fertility issues involves various strategies. Immunotherapy options, such as intralipid infusions and steroids, aim to modulate NK cell activity, promoting a more conducive environment for pregnancy. However, these treatments are still under investigation, and their efficacy remains a topic of ongoing research.

NK cells are indispensable in reproductive immunology, with their roles in embryo implantation and placental development being crucial for a successful pregnancy. However, their dual nature requires a delicate balance, as both their deficiency and overactivity can lead to fertility issues. Continuous research is necessary to fully understand and effectively manage NK cell-related fertility problems, paving the way for improved reproductive health outcomes.


  1. *King, A., Wellings, V., Gardner, L., Loke, Y.W. (1989).* Immunity to trophoblast in human pregnancy. American Journal of Reproductive Immunology, 21(1), 1–8.
  2. *Quenby, S., Kalumbi, C., Bates, M., Farquharson, R., Vince, G. (2005).* Prednisolone reduces preconceptual endometrial natural killer cells in women with recurrent miscarriage. Fertility and Sterility, 84(4), 980–984.
  3. *Bulmer, J.N., Lash, G.E. (2019).* The role of uterine natural killer cells in normal reproduction and reproductive disorders. American Journal of Reproductive Immunology, 81(3), e13101.