Perturbed NK Cell Homeostasis Associated with Disease Severity in Chronic Neutropenia

Blood. 2021 Oct 26;blood.2021013233. doi: 10.1182/blood.2021013233. Online ahead of print.


Neutrophils have been suggested to play a critical role in terminal differentiation of NK cells. Whether this is a direct effect or a consequence of global immune changes with effects on NK cell homeostasis remains unknown. Here, we used high-resolution flow- and mass cytometry to examine NK cell repertoires in 64 patients with neutropenia and 27 healthy age- and gender-matched donors. A subgroup of patients with chronic neutropenia showed severely disrupted NK cell homeostasis manifested 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 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, different from 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 suggests 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.