Human natural killer cells and other innate lymphoid cells in cancer: Friends or foes?

Paola Vacca, Enrico Munari, Nicola Tumino, Francesca Moretta, Gabriella Pietra, Massimo Vitale, Genny Del Zotto, Francesca Romana Mariotti, Maria Cristina Mingari, Lorenzo Moretta

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Innate lymphoid cells (ILC) including NK cells (cytotoxic) and the recently identified "helper" ILC1, ILC2 and ILC3, play an important role in innate defenses against pathogens. Notably, they mirror analogous T cell subsets, regarding the pattern of cytokine produced, while the timing of their intervention is few hours vs days required for T cell-mediated adaptive responses. On the other hand, the effectiveness of ILC in anti-tumor defenses is controversial. The relevance of NK cells in the control of tumor growth and metastasis has been well documented and they have been exploited in the therapy of high risk leukemia in the haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation setting. In contrast, the actual involvement of helper ILCs remains contradictory. Thus, while certain functional capabilities of ILC1 and ILC3 may favor anti-tumor responses, other functions could rather favor tumor growth, neo-angiogenesis, epithelial-mesenchymal transition and metastasis. In addition, ILC2, by secreting type-2 cytokines, are thought to induce a prevalent pro-tumorigenic effect. Finally, the function of both NK cells and helper ILCs may be inhibited by the tumor microenvironment, thus adding further complexity to the interplay between ILC and tumors.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages6
JournalImmunology Letters
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Nov 12 2018


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