Natural killer cell receptors

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Natural killer (NK) cells are an important arm of the innate immune response that are directly involved in the recognition and lysis of virus-infected and tumor cells. Such function is under the control of a complex array of germline-encoded receptors able to deliver either inhibitory or activating signals. The majority of inhibitory receptors expressed by NK cells are major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I-specific and display clonal and stochastic distribution on the cell surface. Thus, a given NK cell expresses at least one self class I inhibitory receptor. Under normal conditions, the strength of inhibitory signals delivered by multiple interactions always overrides the activating signals, resulting in NK cell self-tolerance. Under certain pathological conditions, such as viral infections or tumor transformation, the delicate balance of inhibition versus activation is broken, resulting in downregulation or loss of MHC class I expression. In general, the degree of inhibition induced by class I-specific receptors is proportional to the amount of these molecules on the cell surface. Thus, in transformed cells, this inhibition can be overridden by the triggering signal cascades, leading to cell activation. The majority of triggering receptors expressed by NK cells belong to the multichain immune recognition receptor (MIRR) family and use separate signal-transducing Polypeptides similar to those used by other immune receptors such as the T-cell antigen receptor, the B-cell antigen receptor and other receptors expressed by myeloid cells. Inhibitory receptors are not members of the MIRR family but they are relevant for a better understanding the exquisite equilibrium and regulatory crosstalk between positive and negative signals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-52
Number of pages18
JournalAdvances in Experimental Medicine and Biology
Publication statusPublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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