Human mesenchymal stromal/stem cells acquire immunostimulatory capacity upon cross-talk with natural killer cells and might improve the NK cell function of immunocompromised patients

Stem Cell Res Ther. 2016 Jul 7;7(1):88. doi: 10.1186/s13287-016-0353-9.


Background: The suppressive effect of mesenchymal stromal/stem cells (MSCs) on diverse immune cells is well known, but it is unclear whether MSCs additionally possess immunostimulatory properties. We investigated the impact of human MSCs on the responsiveness of primary natural killer (NK) cells in terms of cytokine secretion.

Methods: Human MSCs were generated from bone marrow and nasal mucosa. NK cells were isolated from peripheral blood of healthy volunteers or of immunocompromised patients after severe injury. NK cells were cultured with MSCs or with MSC-derived conditioned media in the absence or presence of IL-12 and IL-18. C-C chemokine receptor (CCR) 2, C-C chemokine ligand (CCL) 2, and the interferon (IFN)-γ receptor was blocked by specific inhibitors or antibodies. The synthesis of IFN-γ and CCL2 was determined.

Results: In the absence of exogenous cytokines, trace amounts of NK cell-derived IFN-γ licensed MSCs for enhanced synthesis of CCL2. In turn, MSCs primed NK cells for increased release of IFN-γ in response to IL-12 and IL-18. Priming of NK cells by MSCs occurred in a cell-cell contact-independent manner and was impaired by inhibition of the CCR2, the receptor of CCL2, on NK cells. CD56(bright) NK cells expressed higher levels of CCR2 and were more sensitive to CCL2-mediated priming by MSCs and by recombinant CCR2 ligands than cytotoxic CD56(dim) NK cells. NK cells from severely injured patients were impaired in cytokine-induced IFN-γ synthesis. Co-culture with MSCs or with conditioned media from MSCs and MSC/NK cell co-cultures from healthy donors improved the IFN-γ production of the patients' NK cells in a CCR2-dependent manner.

Conclusions: A positive feedback loop driven by NK cell-derived IFN-γ and MSC-derived CCL2 increases the inflammatory response of cytokine-stimulated NK cells not only from healthy donors but also from immunocompromised patients. Therapeutic application of MSCs or their soluble factors might thus improve the NK function after severe injury.

Keywords: CCL2; CCR2; Chemokines; Immunosuppression; Injury; Interferon gamma; MCP-1; Mesenchymal stem cells; Mesenchymal stromal cells; Natural killer cells; Trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antibodies / pharmacology
  • Cell Communication / drug effects
  • Chemokine CCL2 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Chemokine CCL2 / genetics
  • Chemokine CCL2 / immunology
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Culture Media, Conditioned / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunocompromised Host*
  • Immunomodulation / drug effects*
  • Interferon-gamma / genetics
  • Interferon-gamma / immunology
  • Interleukin-12 / pharmacology
  • Interleukin-18 / pharmacology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / drug effects
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Male
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / cytology
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / immunology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Trauma / immunology*
  • Multiple Trauma / pathology
  • Receptors, CCR2 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, CCR2 / genetics
  • Receptors, CCR2 / immunology
  • Receptors, Interferon / genetics
  • Receptors, Interferon / immunology
  • Trauma Severity Indices


  • Antibodies
  • CCL2 protein, human
  • CCR2 protein, human
  • Chemokine CCL2
  • Culture Media, Conditioned
  • IL18 protein, human
  • Interleukin-18
  • Receptors, CCR2
  • Receptors, Interferon
  • interferon gamma receptor
  • Interleukin-12
  • Interferon-gamma