Natural killer (NK) cells represent a first line of defense against pathogens and tumor cells. The activation of NK cells is regulated by the integration of signals deriving from activating and inhibitory receptors expressed on their surface. However, different NK cells respond differently to the same stimulus, be it target cells or agents that crosslink activating receptors. The processes that determine the level of NK cell responsiveness have been referred to collectively as NK cell education. NK cell education plays an important role in steady state conditions, where potentially auto-reactive NK cells are rendered tolerant to the surrounding environment. According to the "tuning" concept, the responsiveness of each NK cell is quantitatively adjusted to ensure self tolerance while at the same time ensuring useful reactivity against potential threats. MHC-specific inhibitory receptors displayed by NK cells play a major role in tuning NK cell responsiveness, but recent studies indicate that signaling from activating receptors is also important, suggesting that the critical determinant is an integrated signal from both types of receptors. An important and still unresolved question is whether NK cell education involves interactions with a specific cell population in the environment. Whether hematopoietic and/or non-hematopoietic cells play a role is still under debate. Recent results demonstrated that NK cell tuning exhibits plasticity in steady state conditions, meaning that it can be re-set if the MHC environment changes. Other evidence suggests, however, that inflammatory conditions accompanying infections may favor high responsiveness, indicating that inflammatory agents can over-ride the natural tendency of NK cells to adjust to the steady state environment. These findings raise many questions such as whether viruses and tumor cells manipulate NK cell responsiveness to evade immune-recognition. As knowledge of the underlying processes grows, the possibility of modulating NK cell responsiveness for therapeutic purposes is becoming increasingly attractive, and is now under serious investigation in clinical studies.
Keywords: Inflammation; Missing self; NK cell education.
Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.