In this study, we show that NKRP1A is expressed and functions on a subset of immature human thymocytes. We took advantage of the monoclonal antibody (mAb) 191B8 that was obtained by immunizing mice with cultured human thymocytes characterized by an immature surface phenotype [CD2- CD3- CD4- CD8- stem cell factor receptor (SCFR)+] and expressing cytoplasmic CD3ε chain. The 191B8 antibody homogeneously reacted with the immunizing population but not with most unfractionated thymocytes. It stained a minor population of resting immature thymocytes co-expressing CD34, SCFR, or both. Following culture of the CD34+ or CD34- fractions of CD2- CD3- CD4- CD8- purified immature thymocytes with recombinant interleukin-2 (rIL-2), the 191B8-defined antigen was expressed on virtually all cells even when 191B8+ cells were removed from the starting population. On the other hand, no 191B8+ cells were detected in fresh or cultured thymocytes expressing a more mature phenotype. Biochemical analysis of 191B8 mAb-reactive molecules revealed, under non-reducing conditions, two bands displaying apparent molecular masses of 80 and 44 kDa and a single band of 44 kDa under reducing conditions. Digestion with proteases indicated that the 8O-kDa form represented a homodimeric form of two 44-kDa molecules, while deglycosylation with N-glycanase suggested the existence of four N-glycosylation sites. Transfection of COS7 or NIH3T3 cells with hNKRP1A cDNA showed that the 191B8 mAb recognized NKRP1A as shown by both immunofluorescence analysis and immunoprecipitation experiments. Functional studies showed that the 191B8/NKRP1A molecule mediated strong inhibition of the cytolytic activity of cultured CD2- CD3- immature thymocytes against a panel of tumor target cells. More importantly, 191B8 mAb induced proliferation of CD2- CD3- fresh thymocytes which was not increased by rIL-2. Thus, we propose that NKRP1A molecules, which are expressed in highly immature thymocytes, may play a regulatory role in their growth and function.
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