Natural killer (NK) cells are a component of the innate immunity against viral infections through their rapid cytotoxic activity and cytokine production. Although the synthetic double-stranded (ds) RNA polyinosinic-polycytidylic acid (poly I:C), a mimic of a common product of viral infections, is known to rapidly up-regulate their in vivo functions, NK cell ability to directly respond to dsRNA is still mostly unknown. Our results show that treatment with poly I:C significantly up-regulates both natural and CD16-mediated cytotoxicity of highly purified human NK cells. Poly I:C also induces the novel capability of producing CXCL10 chemokine in human NK cells and synergistically enhances interferon-γ (IFN-γ) production induced by either adaptive or innate cytokines. In accordance with the expression of Toll-like receptor-3 (TLR3) and of TRIF/TICAM-1 adaptor, poly I:C stimulation induces the activation of interferon regulatory factor-3 (IRF-3) transcription factor and of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) in human NK cells. Finally, we demonstrate that p38 MAPK activity is required for the dsRNA-dependent enhancement of cytotoxicity and CXCL10 production. The occurrence of dsRNA-induced signaling and functional events closely correlates with the TLR3 mRNA profile in different NK cell populations. Taken together, these data identify p38 as a central component of NK cell ability to directly respond to dsRNA pathogen-associated molecular pattern (PAMP).
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