Interleukin-15 Signaling in HIF-1α Regulation in Natural Killer Cells, Insights Through Mathematical Models

Front Immunol. 2019 Oct 16:10:2401. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.02401. eCollection 2019.


Natural killer (NK) cells belong to the first line of host defense against infection and cancer. Cytokines, including interleukin-15 (IL-15), critically regulate NK cell activity, resulting in recognition and direct killing of transformed and infected target cells. NK cells have to adapt and respond in inflamed and often hypoxic areas. Cellular stabilization and accumulation of the transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor-1α (HIF-1α) is a key mechanism of the cellular hypoxia response. At the same time, HIF-1α plays a critical role in both innate and adaptive immunity. While the HIF-1α hydroxylation and degradation pathway has been recently described with the help of mathematical methods, less is known concerning the mechanistic mathematical description of processes regulating the levels of HIF-1α mRNA and protein. In this work we combine mathematical modeling with experimental laboratory analysis and examine the dynamic relationship between HIF-1α mRNA, HIF-1α protein, and IL-15-mediated upstream signaling events in NK cells from human blood. We propose a system of non-linear ordinary differential equations with positive and negative feedback loops for describing the complex interplay of HIF-1α regulators. The experimental design is optimized with the help of mathematical methods, and numerical optimization techniques yield reliable parameter estimates. The mathematical model allows for the investigation and prediction of HIF-1α stabilization under different inflammatory conditions and provides a better understanding of mechanisms mediating cellular enrichment of HIF-1α. Thanks to the combination of in vitro experimental data and in silico predictions we identified the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), the nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB), and the signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) as central regulators of HIF-1α accumulation. We hypothesize that the regulatory pathway proposed here for NK cells can be extended to other types of immune cells. Understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in the dynamic regulation of the HIF-1α pathway in immune cells is of central importance to the immune cell function and could be a promising strategy in the design of treatments for human inflammatory diseases and cancer.

Keywords: HIF-1α; IL-15; NF-κB; STAT3; mTOR; mathematical model; natural killer cells; parameter estimation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / immunology*
  • Interleukin-15 / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Models, Immunological*
  • Signal Transduction / immunology*


  • HIF1A protein, human
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • IL15 protein, human
  • Interleukin-15