Neutrophils have been thought to play a critical role in terminal differentiation of NK cells. Whether this effect is direct or a consequence of global immune changes with effects on NK-cell homeostasis remains unknown. In this study, we used high-resolution flow and mass cytometry to examine NK-cell repertoires in 64 patients with neutropenia and 27 healthy age- and sex-matched donors. A subgroup of patients with chronic neutropenia showed severely disrupted NK-cell homeostasis manifesting as increased frequencies of CD56bright NK cells and a lack of mature CD56dim NK cells. These immature NK-cell repertoires were characterized by expression of the proliferation/exhaustion markers Ki-67, Tim-3, and TIGIT and displayed blunted tumor target cell responses. Systems-level immune mapping revealed that the changes in immunophenotypes were confined to NK cells, leaving T-cell differentiation intact. RNA sequencing of NK cells from these patients showed upregulation of a network of genes, including TNFSF9, CENPF, MKI67, and TOP2A, associated with apoptosis and the cell cycle, but different from the conventional CD56bright signatures. Profiling of 249 plasma proteins showed a coordinated enrichment of pathways related to apoptosis and cell turnover, which correlated with immature NK-cell repertoires. Notably, most of these patients exhibited severe-grade neutropenia, suggesting that the profoundly altered NK-cell homeostasis was connected to the severity of their underlying etiology. Hence, although our data suggest that neutrophils are dispensable for NK-cell development and differentiation, some patients displayed a specific gap in the NK repertoire, associated with poor cytotoxic function and more severe disease manifestations.
© 2022 by The American Society of Hematology.