Natural killer (NK) cells are most efficient if their targets do not express self MHC class I, because NK cells carry inhibitory receptors that interfere with activating their cytotoxic pathway. Clinicians have taken advantage of this by adoptively transferring haploidentical NK cells into patients to mediate an effective graft-versus-leukemia response. With a similar rationale, antibody blockade of MHC class I-specific inhibitory NK cell receptors is currently being tested in clinical trials. Both approaches are challenged by the emerging concept that NK cells may constantly adapt or "tune" their responsiveness according to the amount of self MHC class I that they sense on surrounding cells. Hence, these therapeutic attempts would initially result in increased killing of tumor cells, but a parallel adaptation process might ultimately lead to impaired anti-tumor efficacy. We have investigated this in two mouse models: inhibitory receptor blockade in vivo and adoptive transfer to MHC class I-disparate hosts. We show that changed self-perception via inhibitory receptors in mature NK cells reprograms the reactivity such that tolerance to healthy cells is always preserved. However, reactivity against cancer cells lacking critical MHC class I molecules (missing self reactivity) still remains or may even be increased. This dissociation between activity against healthy and tumor cells may provide an answer as to why NK cells mediate graft-versus-leukemia effects without causing Graft-versus-host-disease and may also be utilized to improve immunotherapy.
- Received January 1, 2015.
- Revision received August 29, 2015.
- Accepted September 18, 2015.
- Copyright © 2015, American Association for Cancer Research.