Immunoregulatory natural killer cells suppress autoimmunity by down-regulating antigen-specific CD8+ T cells in mice

Endocrinology. 2012 Sep;153(9):4367-79. doi: 10.1210/en.2012-1247. Epub 2012 Jun 25.


Natural killer (NK) cells belong to the innate immune system. Besides their role in antitumor immunity, NK cells also regulate the activity of other cells of the immune system, including dendritic cells, macrophages, and T cells, and may, therefore, be involved in autoimmune processes. The aim of the present study was to clarify the role of NK cells within this context. Using two mouse models for type 1 diabetes mellitus, a new subset of NK cells with regulatory function was identified. These cells were generated from conventional NK cells by incubation with IL-18 and are characterized by the expression of the surface markers CD117 (also known as c-Kit, stem cell factor receptor) and programmed death (PD)-ligand 1. In vitro analyses demonstrated a direct lysis activity of IL-18-stimulated NK cells against activated insulin-specific CD8(+) T cells in a PD-1/PD-ligand 1-dependent manner. Flow cytometry analyses revealed a large increase of splenic and lymphatic NK1.1(+)/c-Kit(+) NK cells in nonobese diabetic mice at 8 wk of age, the time point of acceleration of adaptive cytotoxic immunity. Adoptive transfer of unstimulated and IL-18-stimulated NK cells into streptozotocin-treated mice led to a delayed diabetes development and partial disease prevention in the group treated with IL-18-stimulated NK cells. Consistent with these data, mild diabetes was associated with increased numbers of NK1.1(+)/c-Kit(+) NK cells within the islets. Our results demonstrate a direct link between innate and adaptive immunity in autoimmunity with newly identified immunoregulatory NK cells displaying a potential role as immunosuppressors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Autoimmunity / immunology*
  • CD8 Antigens / metabolism*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Experimental / immunology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Experimental / metabolism
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*


  • CD8 Antigens