Cancer cells educate natural killer cells to a metastasis-promoting cell state

J Cell Biol. 2020 Sep 7;219(9):e202001134. doi: 10.1083/jcb.202001134.


Natural killer (NK) cells have potent antitumor and antimetastatic activity. It is incompletely understood how cancer cells escape NK cell surveillance. Using ex vivo and in vivo models of metastasis, we establish that keratin-14+ breast cancer cells are vulnerable to NK cells. We then discovered that exposure to cancer cells causes NK cells to lose their cytotoxic ability and promote metastatic outgrowth. Gene expression comparisons revealed that healthy NK cells have an active NK cell molecular phenotype, whereas tumor-exposed (teNK) cells resemble resting NK cells. Receptor-ligand analysis between teNK cells and tumor cells revealed multiple potential targets. We next showed that treatment with antibodies targeting TIGIT, antibodies targeting KLRG1, or small-molecule inhibitors of DNA methyltransferases (DMNT) each reduced colony formation. Combinations of DNMT inhibitors with anti-TIGIT or anti-KLRG1 antibodies further reduced metastatic potential. We propose that NK-directed therapies targeting these pathways would be effective in the adjuvant setting to prevent metastatic recurrence.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Methyltransferases / immunology
  • Mice
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / immunology*
  • Receptors, Immunologic / immunology


  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Methyltransferases