Pelvic organ prolapse (POP) is a common, debilitating disorder affecting millions of women. Uterosacral ligaments (USLs) are the main supportive structures of the uterus and vagina and are often attenuated in women with POP. Although the mechanical strength of USLs is known to be dependent on collagen synthesis and catabolism and the degradation protein MMP2 has been implicated in POP, the molecular mechanisms involved in the development of POP are currently unknown. Homeobox (HOX) genes are transcriptional regulators that orchestrate embryonic development of the urogenital tract. We demonstrated here that HOXA11 was essential for organogenesis of the USL by showing that USLs were absent in Hoxa11-null mice. We compared expression of HOXA11, collagen type I, collagen type III, MMP2, and MMP9 in USLs of women with and without POP. Expression of HOXA11 and both collagens was dramatically decreased while MMP2 was increased in women with POP. Constitutive expression of Hoxa11 in murine fibroblasts resulted in significantly increased expression of collagen type III and decreased expression of MMP2. These results identified HOXA11 as an essential gene for the development of the USL and suggested that women with POP might have weakened connective tissue due to changes in a signaling pathway involving HOXA11, collagen type III, and MMP2.
Kathleen A. Connell, Marsha K. Guess, Heidi Chen, Vaagn Andikyan, Richard Bercik, Hugh S. Taylor