My lab studies how early events in host-pathogen interactions affect the regulation of innate immunity and thus disease outcome. As a model pathogen, we use Listeria monocytogenes, a Gram-positive bacterium that can invade and grow within the cytosol of nearly all animal cell types. L. monocytogenes is a common contaminant of processed foods and, when ingested by a pregnant woman, can infect placental tissues and the fetus. Such L. monocytogenes infections have been estimated to cause up to 4% of spontaneous abortions in developed countries.
One aspect of our current research investigates the interactions between infected cells and a specific type of innate immune lymphocyte, the natural killer (NK) cell. NK cells are present in the blood (pNK), and are also prevalent in the maternal deciduas during pregnancy (uNK). pNK cells contribute to immune responses during infections and cancer, whereas uNK cells contribute to the development of the maternal and fetal blood systems during formation of the placenta. We are currently investigating how specific microbial and host immune factors influence the activation of each of these NK cell populations in the context of L. monocytogenes infection. Future studies will investigate how such activation affects maternal tolerance of the fetus and pregnancy outcomes.