Not a scratch

A newly identified population of cells helps the uterus to heal itself during periods.

The human uterus exhibits remarkable healing abilities. Image credit: Adapted from Servier Medical Art by Servier using ‘Drip Vector’ by Akash Akash on (CC BY 3.0)

The human uterus is a formidable organ. From puberty to menopause, it completely sheds off its internal lining every 28 days or so, creating what is in effect a large open wound. Unlike the skin or other parts of the body, however, this tissue can quickly repair itself without scarring. This fascinating process remains poorly understood, partly because human samples and animal models that mimic human menstruation are still lacking. This makes it difficult to grasp how various types of uterine cells get mobilised for healing.

To fill this gap, Kirkwood et al. focused on fibroblasts, a heterogenous cell population which helps to support the epithelial cells lining the inside of the uterus. How these cells responded to the advent of menstruation was examined in female mice genetically manipulated to have human-like periods. A method known as single-cell RNAseq was used to track which genes were active in each of these cells before, one day and two days after period onset. This revealed the existence of a subpopulation of cells which only appeared when wound healing was most needed.

These ‘repair-specific’ fibroblasts expressed a mixture of genes; those typical of fibroblasts but also some known to be active in the epithelial cells lining the uterus. This suggests that the cells were in the process of changing their identity so they could remake the uterine layer lost during a period. And indeed, labelling these fibroblasts with a fluorescent tag showed that, during healing, they had migrated from within the uterine tissue to become part of its newly restored internal surface. These results represent the first evidence that fibroblasts play a direct role in repairing the uterus during menstruation.

From endometriosis to infertility, the lives of millions of people around the world are impacted by disorders which affect the uterine lining. A better understanding of how the uterus can fix itself month after month could help to find new treatments for these conditions. This knowledge could also be useful for to address abnormal wound healing in the skin and other tissues, as this process often involves fibroblasts.