CD137 (4-1BB) Engagement Fine-Tunes Synergistic IL-15- and IL-21-Driven NK Cell Proliferation

J Immunol. 2019 Aug 1;203(3):676-685. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1801137. Epub 2019 Jun 14.


To understand and dissect the mechanisms driving human NK cell proliferation, we exploited the methodology used in cell therapy to numerically expand NK cells in the presence of K562-derived artificial APC (aAPCs) and cytokines. For four consecutive weeks, high expression of CD137L by a K562-derived aAPC cell line could sustain NK cell expansion by 3 × 105-fold, whereas low expression of CD137L by the parental K562 cell line only supported the expansion by 2 × 103-fold. The level of expression of CD137L, however, did not modulate the sensitivity of K562 cells to the intrinsic cytotoxicity of NK cells. Similarly, the low NK cell proliferation in the presence of the parental K562 cell line and cytokines was increased by adding agonistic anti-CD137 Abs to levels similar to CD137L-expressing K562-derived aAPCs. Finally, synergy between IL-15 and IL-21 was observed only upon CD137 engagement and the presence of aAPCs. Therefore, we conclude that NK cell proliferation requires cell-to-cell contact, activation of the CD137 axis, and presence of IL-15 (or its membranous form) and IL-21. By analogy with the three-signal model required to activate T cells, we speculate that the cell-to-cell contact represents "signal 1," CD137 represents "signal 2," and cytokines represent "signal 3." The precise nature of signal 1 remains to be defined.

MeSH terms

  • 4-1BB Ligand / metabolism*
  • Antibodies / immunology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy
  • Interleukin-15 / immunology*
  • Interleukins / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor Receptor Superfamily, Member 9 / metabolism*


  • 4-1BB Ligand
  • Antibodies
  • Interleukin-15
  • Interleukins
  • Tnfsf9 protein, mouse
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor Receptor Superfamily, Member 9
  • interleukin-21