Natural killer (NK) cells can kill target cells via the recognition of stress molecules and down-regulation of major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I). Some NK cells are educated to recognize and kill cells that have lost their MHC-I expression, e.g., tumor or virus-infected cells. A desired property of cancer immunotherapy is, therefore, to activate educated NK cells during anti-tumor responses in vivo. We here analyze NK cell responses to α-galactosylceramide (αGC), a potent activator of invariant NKT (iNKT) cells, or to exosomes loaded with αGC. In mouse strains which express different MHC-I alleles using an extended NK cell flow cytometry panel, we show that αGC induces a biased NK cell proliferation of educated NK cells. Importantly, iNKT cell-induced activation of NK cells selectively increased in vivo missing self-responses, leading to more effective rejection of tumor cells. Exosomes from antigen-presenting cells are attractive anti-cancer therapy tools as they may induce both innate and adaptive immune responses, thereby addressing the hurdle of tumor heterogeneity. Adding αGC to antigen-loaded dendritic-cell-derived exosomes also led to an increase in missing self-responses in addition to boosted T and B cell responses. This study manifests αGC as an attractive adjuvant in cancer immunotherapy, as it increases the functional capacity of educated NK cells and enhances the innate, missing self-based antitumor response.
Keywords: MHC class I; NK cell education; antitumor immunity; exosomes; extracellular vesicles; innate anti-tumor response; missing-self response; natural killer (NK) cells.