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Natural Killer Cells

Philipp Eissmann, Imperial College, London, UK

Natural Killer (NK) Cells represent one of the three subsets of lymphocytes, besides T- and B- cells. In comparison to the latter, NK cells belong to the innate immune system and form a first line of defence against a wide variety of pathological challenges. Particularly, they provide protection against viral and bacterial infections and they help to detect and limit the development of cancer.

In this regard, NK cells were first described as cells that have the ability to kill tumour cells without any priming or prior activation (remember that e.g. cytotoxic T cells need priming by antigen presenting cells) and their name is ultimately connected to this ‘natural’ ability to kill. Additionally, NK cells secrete cytokines, as for example INFg  and TNFa, which constitute a second important defence mechanism during an immune reaction.

One could imagine that cells which display a natural ability to kill need to be controlled very strictly to protect healthy cells from attack. Therefore, in addition to a variety of different activating receptors, NK cells express inhibitory receptors that recognize cognate MHC class I (this is also referred to as recognition of ‘self’).This is a very efficient mechanism of control as almost all ‘normal’ cells express MHC class I and are therefore protected from unwanted attack.

Natural killer cells - figure 1

While on patrol NK cells constantly contact other cells. During these interactions a balance of activating and inhibitory signals determines whether NK cells attack or not.

Natural killer cells - figure 2

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