Objective: Patients with systemic autoimmune diseases have been reported to have reduced numbers of peripheral blood natural killer (NK) cells compared with healthy subjects. The ability of selected cytokines to trigger NK cell death prompted us to compare the levels of peripheral blood cytokines with the numbers of NK cells in patients with various systemic autoimmune diseases.
Methods: We used enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays to measure the concentration of selected cytokines (interleukin-18 [IL-18], IL-15, IL-12, IL-2, interferon-gamma [IFNgamma], and tumor necrosis factor alpha [TNFalpha]) in sera from 58 patients with systemic autoimmune diseases and 33 healthy controls. The absolute number of T cells and NK cells in the peripheral blood was measured in parallel using flow cytometry. The ability of selected cytokines to induce NK cell death was then measured using 3,3'-dihexyloxacarbocyanine iodide dye, propidium iodide staining, and caspase 3 activity.
Results: Levels of IL-18, IL-15, IFNgamma, and TNFalpha were elevated in sera from patients with systemic autoimmune diseases compared with normal controls. The percentage of NK cells and natural killer T cells were significantly decreased in the peripheral blood of patients with systemic autoimmune diseases compared with normal controls. Serum concentrations of IL-18, IL-15, and TNFalpha were inversely related to the number of NK cells in both patients and healthy controls. The combination of IL-18 and IL-15 or IL-18 and IL-12 induced NK cell death in vitro. The combination of IL-18 and IL-15 or IL-18 and IL-12 enhanced IFNgamma and TNFalpha production by NK cells in vitro. Cytokine-induced NK cell death is caspase-dependent and is partially blocked by neutralizing antibodies against TNFalpha.
Conclusion: High levels of IL-18 and IL-15 are associated with the decreased number of NK cells that is observed in patients with systemic autoimmune diseases.