How the fetus escapes rejection by the maternal immune system remains one of the major unsolved questions in transplantation immunology. Using a system to visualize both CD4+ and CD8+ T cell responses during pregnancy in mice, we find that maternal T cells become aware of the fetal allograft exclusively through “indirect” antigen presentation, meaning that T cell engagement requires the uptake and processing of fetal/placental antigen by maternal APCs. This reliance on a relatively minor allorecognition pathway removes a major threat to fetal survival, since it avoids engaging the large number of T cells that typically drive acute transplant rejection through their ability to directly interact with foreign MHC molecules. Furthermore, CD8+ T cells that indirectly recognize fetal/placental antigen undergo clonal deletion without priming for cytotoxic effector function and cannot induce antigen-specific fetal demise even when artificially activated. Antigen presentation commenced only at mid-gestation, in association with the endovascular invasion of placental trophoblasts and the hematogenous release of placental debris. Our results suggest that limited pathways of antigen presentation, in conjunction with tandem mechanisms of immune evasion, contribute to the unique immunological status of the fetus. The pronounced degree of T cell ignorance of the fetus also has implications for the pathophysiology of immune-mediated early pregnancy loss.
Adrian Erlebacher, Daniela Vencato, Kelly A. Price, Dorothy Zhang, Laurie H. Glimcher