Unravelling natural killer cell function: triggering and inhibitory human NK receptors

EMBO J. 2004 Jan 28;23(2):255-9. doi: 10.1038/sj.emboj.7600019. Epub 2003 Dec 18.


Natural killer (NK) cells represent a highly specialized lymphoid population characterized by a potent cytolytic activity against tumor or virally infected cells. Their function is finely regulated by a series of inhibitory or activating receptors. The inhibitory receptors, specific for major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules, allow NK cells to discriminate between normal cells and cells that have lost the expression of MHC class I (e.g., tumor cells). The major receptors responsible for NK cell triggering are NKp46, NKp30, NKp44 and NKG2D. The NK-mediated lysis of tumor cells involves several such receptors, while killing of dendritic cells involves only NKp30. The target-cell ligands recognized by some receptors have been identified, but those to which major receptors bind are not yet known. Nevertheless, functional data suggest that they are primarily expressed on cells upon activation, proliferation or tumor transformation. Thus, the ability of NK cells to lyse target cells requires both the lack of surface MHC class I molecules and the expression of appropriate ligands that trigger NK receptors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism*


  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Immunologic