Invariant NKT cells are important in the activation and regulation of immune responses. They can also function as CD1d-restricted killer cells. However, the role of activating innate NK-cell receptors expressed on NKT cells in triggering cytolytic function is poorly characterized. Here, we initially confirmed that the cellular stress-ligand receptor NKG2D is expressed on CD4- NKT cells, whereas most CD4+ NKT cells lack this receptor. Interestingly, NKG2D+ NKT cells frequently expressed perforin, and both NKG2D and perforin localized at the site of contact with NKG2D ligand-expressing target cells. CD4- NKT cells degranulated in response to NKG2D engagement in a redirected activation assay independent of stimulation via their invariant TCR. NKT cells killed P815 cells coated with anti-NKG2D mAb and CD1d-negative K562 tumor target cells in an NKG2D-dependent manner. Furthermore, NKG2D engagement co-stimulated TCR-mediated NKT-cell activation in response to endogenous CD1d-presented ligands or suboptimal levels of anti-CD3 triggering. These data indicate that the CD4- subset of human NKT cells can mediate direct lysis of target cells via NKG2D engagement independent of CD1d, and that NKG2D also functions as a co-stimulatory receptor in these cells. NKG2D thus plays both a direct and a co-stimulatory role in the activation of NKT cells.
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