Acidic pH inhibits non-MHC-restricted killer cell functions

Clin Immunol. 2000 Sep;96(3):252-63. doi: 10.1006/clim.2000.4904.


Immunotherapeutic strategies in advanced stages of solid tumors have generally met with little success. Various mechanisms have been discussed permitting the escape of tumor cells from an effective antitumoral immune response. Solid tumors are known to develop regions with acidic interstitial pH. In a recent study performed in the human system, we were able to demonstrate that non-MHC-restricted cytotoxicity is inhibited by an acidic microenvironment. To get more insight into the mechanisms leading to this reduced cytotoxic activity, we have now investigated the influence of an acidic extracellular pH (pH(e)) on the killing process in detail. Unstimulated PBMC and LAK cells were used as effector cells. Both populations are able to kill tumor cells in a MHC-independent manner via perforin/granzymes or TNFalpha, whereas only IL-2-activated cells can use the killing pathway via Fas/FasL. We studied the influence of a declining pH(e) on the different killing pathways against TNFalpha-sensitive and -resistant, as well as Fas-positive and -negative, target cells. Experiments in the absence of extracellular Ca(2+) were used to discriminate the Ca(2+)-dependent perforin-mediated killing. Here we show that the release of perforin/granzyme-containing granules, the secretion of TNFalpha, and also the cytotoxic action of Fas/FasL interaction or of membrane-bound TNFalpha were considerably inhibited by declining pH(e). Furthermore, the secretion of the activating cytokine IFNgamma, as well as the release of the down-regulating cytokines IL-10 and TGF-beta(1), was strictly influenced by surrounding pH. As a pH(e) of 5.8 resulted in a nearly complete loss of cytotoxic effector cell functions without affecting their viability, we investigated the influence of pH(e) on basic cellular functions, e.g. , mitochondrial activity and regulation of intracellular pH. We found an increasing inhibition of both functions with declining pH(e). Therefore, an acidic pH(e) obviously impairs fundamental cellular regulation, which finally prevents the killing process. In summary, our data show a strict pH(e) dependence of various killer cell functions. Thus, an acidic microenvironment within solid tumors may contribute to the observed immunosuppression in vivo, compromising antitumoral defense and immunotherapy in general, respectively.

MeSH terms

  • Acids / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic / drug effects
  • Fas Ligand Protein
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration*
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism
  • Interleukin-12 / metabolism
  • Interleukin-2 / metabolism
  • Interleukin-7 / metabolism
  • Intracellular Fluid / chemistry
  • Killer Cells, Lymphokine-Activated / drug effects
  • Killer Cells, Lymphokine-Activated / ultrastructure
  • Killer Cells, Natural / drug effects
  • Killer Cells, Natural / physiology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / ultrastructure
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / biosynthesis
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / pharmacology
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Oligopeptides / pharmacology*
  • Perforin
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins
  • Serine Endopeptidases / pharmacology
  • Time Factors
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism


  • Acids
  • FASLG protein, human
  • Fas Ligand Protein
  • Interleukin-2
  • Interleukin-7
  • MHC binding peptide
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Oligopeptides
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Perforin
  • Interleukin-12
  • Interferon-gamma
  • Serine Endopeptidases