Activation status dictates the function of unlicensed natural killer cells in mice and humans

Ethan G. Aguilar, Cordelia Dunai, Sean J. Judge, Anthony E. Zamora, Lam T. Khuat, Logan V. Vick, Craig P. Collins, Kevin M. Stoffel, Maite Alvarez, Isabel Barao, Jeffrey S. Miller, Bruce R. Blazar, Patrice Chevallier, Christelle Retiere, Robert J. Canter, William J Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Natural killer (NK) cells are involved in innate defense against viral infection and cancer. NK cells can be divided into subsets based on the ability of different receptors to bind to major histocompatibility (MHC) class 1 molecules, resulting in differential responses upon activation in a process called “licensing” or “arming.” NK cells expressing receptors that bind self-MHC are considered licensed due to an augmented effector lytic function capability compared with unlicensed subsets. However, we demonstrated that unlicensed NK subsets instead positively regulate the adaptive T-cell response during viral infections that are related to localization and cytokine production. In this study, the differential effects of the two types of NK subsets were contingent on the environment in viral infection and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) models. Infection of mice with high-dose (HD) murine cytomegalovirus (MCMC) led to a loss of licensing-associated differences, as compared with mice with low-dose (LD) infection: the unlicensed NK subset no longer localized in lymph nodes (LNs), but instead remained at the site of infection. Similarly, the patterns observed during HD infection paralleled the phenotypes of both human and mouse NK cells in an HSCT setting where NK cells exhibit an activated phenotype. However, in contrast to the effects of subset depletion in T-cell replete models, the licensed NK cell subsets still dominated antiviral responses after HSCT. Overall, our results highlight the intricate tuning of NK cells and how it affects overall immune responses with regard to licensing patterns and their dependency on the level of stimulation and activation status.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4219-4232
Number of pages14
JournalBlood Advances
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 26 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology


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