The molecular basis of natural killer (NK) cell recognition and function

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Natural Killer cells are likely to play an important role in the host defenses because they kill virally infected or tumor cells but spare normal self-cells. The molecular mechanism that explains why NK cells do not kill indiscriminately has recently been elucidated. It is due to several specialized receptors that recognize major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules expressed on normal cells. The lack of expression of one or more HLA class I alleles leads to NK-mediated target cell lysis. Different types of receptors specific for groups of HLA-C, HLA-B, and, very recently, HLA-A alleles have been identified. While in most instances, they function as inhibitoty receptors, an activatory form of the HLA-C-specific receptors has been identified in some donors. Molecular cloning of HLA-C-, HLA-B- or HLA-A-specific receptors has revealed new members of the immunoglobulin superfamily with two or three Ig-like domains, respectively, in their extracellular portion. While the inhibitory form is characterized by a long cytoplasmic tail associated with a non-polar transmembrane portion, the activatory one has a short tail associated with a Lys-containing transmembrane portion. Thus, these human NK receptors are different from the murine Ly49, that is a type II transmembrane protein characterized by a C-type lectin domain. A subset of activated T lymphocytes expresses NK-type class I-specific receptors. These receptors exert an inhibiting activity on T cell receptor-mediated functions and may provide an important mechanism of downregulation of T cell responses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-253
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Clinical Immunology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1996


  • natural killer (NK) cells
  • NK cell function
  • NK cell receptors
  • NK cell recognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Immunology and Allergy

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