Natural killer cells are the first lymphocyte population to reconstitute early after non-myeloablative and T cell-replete haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation with post-transplant infusion of cyclophosphamide. The study herein characterizes the transient and predominant expansion starting from the second week following haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation of a donorderived unconventional subset of NKp46neg-low/CD56dim/CD16neg natural killer cells expressing remarkably high levels of CD94/NKG2A. Both transcription and phenotypic profiles indicated that unconventional NKp46neg-low/CD56dim/CD16neg cells are a distinct natural killer cell subpopulation with features of late stage differentiation, yet retaining proliferative capability and functional plasticity to generate conventional NKp46pos/CD56bright/CD16neg-low cells in response to interleukin-15 plus interleukin-18. While present at low frequency in healthy donors, unconventional NKp46neg-low/CD56dim/CD16neg cells are greatly expanded in the seven weeks following haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, and express high levels of the activating receptors NKG2D and NKp30 as well as of the lytic granules Granzyme-B and Perforin. Nonetheless, NKp46neg-low/CD56dim/CD16neg cells displayed a markedly defective cytotoxicity that could be reversed by blocking the inhibitory receptor CD94/NKG2A. These data open new and important perspectives to better understand the ontogenesis/homeostasis of human natural killer cells and to develop a novel immune-therapeutic approach that targets the inhibitory NKG2A check-point, thus unleashing natural killer cell alloreactivity early after haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
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