Biology of natural killer cells

Adv Immunol. 1989:47:187-376. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2776(08)60664-1.


Studies of cytotoxicity by human lymphocytes revealed not only that both allogeneic and syngeneic tumor cells were lysed in a non-MHC-restricted fashion, but also that lymphocytes from normal donors were often cytotoxic. Lymphocytes from any healthy donor, as well as peripheral blood and spleen lymphocytes from several experimental animals, in the absence of known or deliberate sensitization, were found to be spontaneously cytotoxic in vitro for some normal fresh cells, most cultured cell lines, immature hematopoietic cells, and tumor cells. This type of nonadaptive, non-MHC-restricted cellmediated cytotoxicity was defined as “natural” cytotoxicity, and the effector cells mediating natural cytotoxicity were functionally defined as natural killer (NK) cells. The existence of NK cells has prompted a reinterpretation of both the studies of specific cytotoxicity against spontaneous human tumors and the theory of immune surveillance, at least in its most restrictive interpretation. Unlike cytotoxic T cells, NK cells cannot be demonstrated to have clonally distributed specificity, restriction for MHC products at the target cell surface, or immunological memory. NK cells cannot yet be formally assigned to a single lineage based on the definitive identification of a stem cell, a distinct anatomical location of maturation, or unique genotypic rearrangements.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Differentiation / analysis
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Movement
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Cytotoxins / metabolism
  • Female
  • Hematopoiesis
  • Hormones / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Deficiency Syndromes / pathology
  • Infections / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural* / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural* / metabolism
  • Killer Cells, Natural* / physiology
  • Killer Cells, Natural* / ultrastructure
  • Leukemia / pathology
  • Lymphoid Tissue / cytology
  • Lymphokines / biosynthesis
  • Lymphokines / physiology
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / immunology
  • Psychoneuroimmunology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / physiology
  • Reproduction / immunology


  • Antigens, Differentiation
  • Cytotoxins
  • Hormones
  • Lymphokines
  • Receptors, Immunologic