5-azacytidine (5-aza) is a hypomethylating agent approved for the treatment of high-risk myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). It is assumed to act by demethylating tumor suppressor genes and via direct cytotoxic effects on malignant cells. In vitro treatment with hypomethylating agents has profound effects on the expression of killer-cell immunoglobulin-like (KIR) receptors on natural killer (NK) cells, as these receptors are epigenetically regulated via methylation of the promoters. Here we investigated the influence of 5-aza on the NK-cell repertoire during cytokine-induced proliferation in vitro and homeostatic proliferation in vivo in patients with high-risk MDS. In vitro treatment of NK cells from both healthy donors and MDS patients with low doses of 5-aza led to a significant increase in expression of multiple KIRs, but only in cells that had undergone several rounds of cell division. Proliferating 5-aza exposed NK cells exhibited increased IFN-γ production and degranulation towards tumor target cells. MDS patients had lower proportions of educated KIR-expressing NK cells than healthy controls but after systemic treatment with 5-aza, an increased proportion of Ki-67+ NK cells expressed multiple KIRs suggesting uptake of 5-aza in cycling cells in vivo. Hence, these results suggest that systemic treatment with 5-aza may shape the NK cell repertoire, in particular during homeostatic proliferation, thereby boosting NK cell-mediated recognition of malignant cells.
Keywords: 5-azacytidine; Immune response; Immunity; Immunology and Microbiology Section; killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors; myelodysplastic syndrome; natural killer cell.