NK cells respond to tumor and virus-infected cells directly through several activation receptors, including natural cytotoxicity receptors, or indirectly through the activating Fc receptor CD16 for antibody-coated cells. Triggering of NK-cell effector functions through these receptors depends on physically associated transmembrane signaling adaptors, such as FcRγ (also known as FcεRIγ) and CD3ζ, both of which have been traditionally believed to be expressed by all mature NK cells. However, we have identified a distinct subset of human NK cells that are deficient for FcRγ expression but express normal levels of CD3ζ. FcRγ-deficient NK cells were readily detectable in about one-third of the healthy individuals examined. The deficiency was confined to the CD56. dim population and was due to low FcRγ mRNA. FcRγ-deficient NK cells displayed dramatically reduced expression of the natural cytotoxicity receptors NKp46 and NKp30 but still expressed substantial levels of CD16. Compared to FcRγ-expressing NK cells, FcRγ-deficient NK cells showed poor direct reactivity toward tumor targets as measured by cytokine production and degranulation. Unexpectedly, however, FcRγ-deficient NK cells exhibited significantly more robust responsiveness upon stimulation through CD16, particularly for cytokine production, compared to FcRγ-expressing NK cells. Thus, our study reveals FcRγ-deficient NK cells as a novel subset of human NK cells that have remarkably potent responses toward antibody-coated targets. These findings also illustrate a differential contribution of FcRγ and CD3ζ for the expression and functional activity of their associated receptors.
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