Characterizing the Dysfunctional NK Cell: Assessing the Clinical Relevance of Exhaustion, Anergy, and Senescence

Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2020 Feb 13;10:49. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2020.00049. eCollection 2020.


There is a growing body of literature demonstrating the importance of T cell exhaustion in regulating and shaping immune responses to pathogens and cancer. Simultaneously, the parallel development of therapeutic antibodies targeting inhibitory molecules associated with immune exhaustion (such as PD-1, but also TIGIT, and LAG-3) has led to a revolution in oncology with dramatic benefits in a growing list of solid and hematologic malignancies. Given this success in reinvigorating exhausted T cells and the related anti-tumor effects, there are increasing efforts to apply immune checkpoint blockade to other exhausted immune cells beyond T cells. One approach involves the reinvigoration of "exhausted" NK cells, a non-T, non-B lymphoid cell of the innate immune system. However, in contrast to the more well-defined and established molecular, genetic, and immunophenotypic characteristics of T cell exhaustion, a consensus on the defining functional and phenotypic features of NK "exhaustion" is less clear. As is well-known from T cell biology, separate and distinct molecular and cellular processes including senescence, anergy and exhaustion can lead to diminished immune effector function with different implications for immune regulation and recovery. For NK cells, it is unclear if exhaustion, anergy, and senescence entail separate and distinct entities of dysfunction, though all are typically characterized by decreased effector function or proliferation. In this review, we seek to define these distinct spheres of NK cell dysfunction, analyzing how they have been shown to impact NK biology and clinical applications, and ultimately highlight key characteristics in NK cell function, particularly in relation to the role of "exhaustion."

Keywords: NK cells; NK dysfunction; NK exhaustion; immune dysfunction; natural killer cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural*
  • Neoplasms*