Influenza Virus Targets Class I MHC-Educated NK Cells for Immunoevasion

PLoS Pathog. 2016 Feb 29;12(2):e1005446. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1005446. eCollection 2016 Feb.


The immune response to influenza virus infection comprises both innate and adaptive defenses. NK cells play an early role in the destruction of tumors and virally-infected cells. NK cells express a variety of inhibitory receptors, including those of the Ly49 family, which are functional homologs of human killer-cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR). Like human KIR, Ly49 receptors inhibit NK cell-mediated lysis by binding to major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) molecules that are expressed on normal cells. During NK cell maturation, the interaction of NK cell inhibitory Ly49 receptors with their MHC-I ligands results in two types of NK cells: licensed ("functional"), or unlicensed ("hypofunctional"). Despite being completely dysfunctional with regard to rejecting MHC-I-deficient cells, unlicensed NK cells represent up to half of the mature NK cell pool in rodents and humans, suggesting an alternative role for these cells in host defense. Here, we demonstrate that after influenza infection, MHC-I expression on lung epithelial cells is upregulated, and mice bearing unlicensed NK cells (Ly49-deficient NKCKD and MHC-I-deficient B2m-/- mice) survive the infection better than WT mice. Importantly, transgenic expression of an inhibitory self-MHC-I-specific Ly49 receptor in NKCKD mice restores WT influenza susceptibility, confirming a direct role for Ly49. Conversely, F(ab')2-mediated blockade of self-MHC-I-specific Ly49 inhibitory receptors protects WT mice from influenza virus infection. Mechanistically, perforin-deficient NKCKD mice succumb to influenza infection rapidly, indicating that direct cytotoxicity is necessary for unlicensed NK cell-mediated protection. Our findings demonstrate that Ly49:MHC-I interactions play a critical role in influenza virus pathogenesis. We suggest a similar role may be conserved in human KIR, and their blockade may be protective in humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Ly / genetics
  • Antigens, Ly / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Crosses, Genetic
  • Immune Evasion*
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Influenza A virus / immunology*
  • Influenza A virus / physiology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / metabolism
  • Killer Cells, Natural / pathology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / virology
  • Lung / immunology
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung / virology
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily A / agonists
  • NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily A / antagonists & inhibitors
  • NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily A / genetics
  • NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily A / metabolism*
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / immunology*
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / metabolism
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / pathology
  • Orthomyxoviridae Infections / virology
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins / genetics
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins / metabolism
  • Receptors, KIR / agonists
  • Receptors, KIR / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, KIR / genetics
  • Receptors, KIR / metabolism*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / immunology*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / metabolism
  • Respiratory Mucosa / pathology
  • Respiratory Mucosa / virology
  • Specific Pathogen-Free Organisms
  • Survival Analysis
  • beta 2-Microglobulin / genetics
  • beta 2-Microglobulin / metabolism


  • Antigens, Ly
  • NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily A
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins
  • Receptors, KIR
  • beta 2-Microglobulin
  • perforin, mouse