Human NK cells: surface receptors, inhibitory checkpoints, and translational applications

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


NK cells play important roles in innate defenses against viruses and in the control of tumor growth and metastasis. The regulation/induction of NK cell function is mediated by an array of activating or inhibitory surface receptors. In humans, major activating receptors involved in target cell killing are the natural cytotoxicity receptors (NCRs) and NKG2D. Activating receptors recognize ligands that are overexpressed or expressed de novo upon cell stress, viral infection, or tumor transformation. The HLA-class I-specific inhibitory receptors, including KIRs recognizing HLA-class I allotypic determinants and CD94/NKG2A recognizing the class-Ib HLA-E, constitute a fail-safe mechanism to avoid unwanted NK-mediated damage to healthy cells. Other receptors such as PD-1, primarily expressed by activated T lymphocytes, are important inhibitory checkpoints of immune responses that ensure T-cell tolerance. PD-1 also may be expressed by NK cells in cancer patients. Since PD-1 ligand (PD-L1) may be expressed by different tumors, PD-1/PD-L1 interactions inactivate both T and NK cells. Thus, the reliable evaluation of PD-L1 expression in tumors has become a major issue to select patients who may benefit from therapy with mAbs disrupting PD-1/PD-L1 interactions. Recently, NKG2A was revealed to be an important checkpoint controlling both NK and T-cell activation. Since most tumors express HLA-E, mAbs targeting NKG2A has been used alone or in combination with other therapeutic mAbs targeting PD-1 or tumor antigens (e.g., EGFR), with encouraging results. The translational value of NK cells and their receptors is evidenced by the extraordinary therapeutic success of haploidentical HSCT to cure otherwise fatal high-risk leukemias.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)430-441
Number of pages12
JournalCellular and Molecular Immunology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 1 2019


  • Human NK cells, NK receptors, Inhibitory checkpoints, Immunotherapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology
  • Infectious Diseases


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