The role of NKT cells in tumor immunity

Adv Cancer Res. 2008;101:277-348. doi: 10.1016/S0065-230X(08)00408-9.


NKT cells are a relatively newly recognized member of the immune community, with profound effects on the rest of the immune system despite their small numbers. They are true T cells with a T cell receptor (TCR), but unlike conventional T cells that detect peptide antigens presented by conventional major histocompatibility (MHC) molecules, NKT cells recognize lipid antigens presented by CD1d, a nonclassical MHC molecule. As members of both the innate and adaptive immune systems, they bridge the gap between these, and respond rapidly to set the tone for subsequent immune responses. They fill a unique niche in providing the immune system a cellular arm to recognize lipid antigens. They play both effector and regulatory roles in infectious and autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, subsets of NKT cells can play distinct and sometimes opposing roles. In cancer, type I NKT cells, defined by their invariant TCR using Valpha14Jalpha18 in mice and Valpha24Jalpha18 in humans, are mostly protective, by producing interferon-gamma to activate NK and CD8(+) T cells and by activating dendritic cells to make IL-12. In contrast, type II NKT cells, characterized by more diverse TCRs recognizing lipids presented by CD1d, primarily inhibit tumor immunity. Moreover, type I and type II NKT cells counter-regulate each other, forming a new immunoregulatory axis. Because NKT cells respond rapidly, the balance along this axis can greatly influence other immune responses that follow. Therefore, learning to manipulate the balance along the NKT regulatory axis may be critical to devising successful immunotherapies for cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / chemistry
  • Autoimmunity
  • Communicable Diseases / metabolism
  • Dendritic Cells / cytology
  • Humans
  • Immune System
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology


  • Antigens, Neoplasm