Frequency and phenotype of human circulating and intrahepatic natural killer cell subsets is differentially regulated according to stage of chronic liver disease

Digestion. 2013;88(1):1-16. doi: 10.1159/000350821. Epub 2013 Jun 14.


Background/aims: Experimental liver injury models have indicated that natural killer (NK) cells are critical regulators of inflammation and fibrosis. However, data on NK cells and subsets in patients with liver diseases are limited. We thus comprehensively characterized peripheral and hepatic NK cell subsets in patients with chronic liver diseases (CLDs) of different etiologies and fibrosis stages.

Methods: NK cells and other lymphocyte populations were characterized by FACS in 189 CLD patients (71 non-cirrhosis, 118 cirrhosis) and 153 healthy controls in blood and liver biopsies (n = 40).

Results: In contrast to other lymphocyte subsets, circulating NK cells were generally reduced in CLD patients. Patients with fibrosis displayed a distinct increase of CD16- NK cells in blood and of the CD16+ NK cell subset in liver. Patients with cirrhosis had overall lymphopenia, including reduced peripheral NK cells. Most pronounced shifts in NK cell subsets in blood and liver were found in cholestatic and autoimmune CLDs. Blood NK cells and subsets correlated with liver function, and inversely with fibrosis markers and inflammatory cytokines.

Conclusions: The close association of human NK cells with disease severity and the intrahepatic accumulation of CD16+ NK cells in early fibrosis favor the concept of beneficial NK cell functions in hepatofibrogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cytokines / blood
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Liver Cirrhosis / classification
  • Liver Cirrhosis / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Young Adult


  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines