The effect of estradiol, but not progesterone, on the production of cytokines in stimulated whole blood, is concentration-dependent.

OBJECTIVES: The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of estradiol and progesterone on interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), interleukin (IL)-12, IL-10 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) productions in polyclonal activators (phytohemagglutinin+lipopolysaccharide)-stimulated whole blood cultures.

METHODS: Nineteen healthy males and females volunteered in the study. Blood samples were drawn, diluted, and cultured for 24h with different concentrations of estradiol, progesterone or hydrocortisone and then PHA+LPS was added for another 24 h. The supernatant, then, was harvested and assayed for IL-12 p70, IFN-gamma, IL-10 and TNF-alpha.

RESULTS: At preovulatory concentrations, estradiol enhanced significantly IFN-gamma, IL-12 and IL-10, but not TNF-alpha, production levels and reversed the suppressive effect of hydrocortisone in PHA+LPS stimulated whole blood. While IL-10 levels kept increasing at pregnancy estradiol concentrations, IFN-gamma, IL-12 levels and IFN-gamma/IL-10 ratio decreased significantly. No effect of progesterone on IL-12 p70, IFN-gamma, IL-10 and TNF production levels was observed.

CONCLUSIONS: The present study shows that those pregnancy estradiol concentrations (and higher) enhance the production of IL-10 and reduce IL-12, IFN-gamma levels and IFN-gamma/IL-10 ratio in stimulated whole blood cells. Because of the known IL-10 inhibitory actions on T helper (Th) 1 cells and monocytes/macrophages, these high IL-10 levels keep Th2 cytokines favored during pregnancy and may be useful in shifting Th1-mediated autoimmune diseases towards non-pathogenic Th2 pathway.