Natural cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood lymphocytes and cancer incidence: an 11-year follow-up study of a general population

Lancet. 2000 Nov 25;356(9244):1795-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)03231-1.


Background: One of the most critical questions in immunosurveillance is whether differences between individuals with regards to natural immunological host defence can predict future development of cancer. Although this question has so far remained open, there are clear indications of significant roles of several naturally cytotoxic lymphocytes in preventing the development of cancer. We began a prospective cohort study among a Japanese general population in 1986, using various immunological and biochemical markers.

Methods: Natural cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood mononuclear cells was assessed by isotope-release assay in 3625 residents of a Japanese population mostly older than 40 years of age, between 1986 and 1990. Immunological and biochemical markers were also measured, and participants were given a questionnaire on lifestyle. We did an 11-year follow-up survey of the cohort members looking at cancer incidence and death from all causes, and analysed the association between cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood lymphocytes assessed at baseline and cancer incidence found in the subsequent follow-up.

Findings: 154 cancer cases were used in the analysis. When we categorised the cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood lymphocytes by tertiles, age-adjusted relative risk of cancer incidence (all sites) was 0.72 (95% CI 0.45-1.16) for men with high cytotoxic activity, and 0.62 (0.38-1.03) for men with medium cytotoxic activity, taking the risk of those with low cytotoxic activity as reference. For women with high cytotoxic activity relative risk was 0.52 (0.28-0.95), and for those with medium cytotoxic activity 0.56 (0.31-1.01). For both sexes with high and medium cytotoxic activity risk was 0.63 (0.43-0.92) and 0.59 (0.40-0.87), respectively.

Interpretation: Our results indicate that medium and high cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood lymphocytes is associated with reduced cancer risk, whereas low activity is associated with increased cancer risk suggesting a role for natural immunological host defence mechanisms against cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Japan
  • Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured