Harnessing natural killer cells for cancer immunotherapy: dispatching the first responders

Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2022 Aug;21(8):559-577. doi: 10.1038/s41573-022-00413-7. Epub 2022 Mar 21.


Natural killer (NK) cells have crucial roles in the innate immunosurveillance of cancer and viral infections. They are 'first responders' that can spontaneously recognize abnormal cells in the body, rapidly eliminate them through focused cytotoxicity mechanisms and potently produce pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines that recruit and activate other immune cells to initiate an adaptive response. From the initial discovery of the diverse cell surface receptors on NK cells to the characterization of regulatory events that control their function, our understanding of the basic biology of NK cells has improved dramatically in the past three decades. This advanced knowledge has revealed increased mechanistic complexity, which has opened the doors to the development of a plethora of exciting new therapeutics that can effectively manipulate and target NK cell functional responses, particularly in cancer patients. Here, we summarize the basic mechanisms that regulate NK cell biology, review a wide variety of drugs, cytokines and antibodies currently being developed and used to stimulate NK cell responses, and outline evolving NK cell adoptive transfer approaches to treat cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy*
  • Killer Cells, Natural*
  • Neoplasms* / therapy


  • Cytokines