Human NK cells: From surface receptors to clinical applications

Lorenzo Moretta, Gabriella Pietra, Paola Vacca, Daniela Pende, Francesca Moretta, Alice Bertaina, Maria Cristina Mingari, Franco Locatelli, Alessandro Moretta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Natural killer (NK) cells play a major role in innate defenses against pathogens, primarily viruses, and are also thought to be part of the immunosurveillance against tumors. They express an array of surface receptors that mediate NK cell function. The human leukocytes antigen (HLA) class I-specific inhibitory receptors allow NK cells to detect and kill cells that have lost or under-express HLA class I antigens, a typical feature of tumor or virally infected cells. However, NK cell activation and induction of cytolytic activity and cytokine production depends on another important checkpoint, namely the expression on target cells of ligands recognized by activating NK receptors. Despite their potent cytolytic activity, NK cells frequently fail to eliminate tumors. This is due to mechanisms of tumor escape, determined by the tumor cells themselves or by tumor-associated cells (i.e. the tumor microenvironment) via the release of soluble suppressive factors or the induction of inhibitory loops involving induction of regulatory T cells, M2-polarized macrophages and myeloid-derived suppressor cells. The most important clinical application involving NK cells is the cure of high-risk leukemias in the haplo-identical hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) setting. NK cells originated from hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) of HLA-haploidentical donors may express Killer Immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs) that are mismatched with the HLA class I alleles of the recipient. This allows NK cells to kill leukemia blasts residual after the conditioning regimen, while sparing normal cells (that do not express ligands for activating NK receptors). More recent approaches based on the specific removal of TCR α/β+ T cells and of CD19+ B cells, allow the infusion, together with CD34+ HSC, of mature KIR+ NK cells and of TCR γ/δ+ T cells, both characterized by a potent anti-leukemia activity. This greatly reduces the time interval necessary to obtain alloreactive, KIR+ NK cells derived from donor HSC. Another promising approach is based on the use of anti-KIR blocking monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), rendering alloreactive any KIR+ NK cells.

Original languageEnglish
JournalImmunology Letters
Publication statusAccepted/In press - May 11 2016


  • Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT)
  • Innate lymphoid cells (ILC)
  • NK cells
  • Tumor microenvironment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Immunology and Allergy


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