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Curr Drug Deliv. 2012 Jan;9(1):5-16.

Natural killer cells preferentially target cancer stem cells; role of monocytes in protection against NK cell mediated lysis of cancer stem cells.

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  • 1The Jane and Jerry Weintraub Center for Reconstructive Biotechnology, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1668, USA.


Mounting effective anti-tumor immune responses by cytotoxic effectors is important for the clearance of tumors. However, accumulated evidence suggests that the cytotoxic function of immune effectors is largely suppressed in the tumor microenvironment by a number of distinct effectors and their secreted factors. The aims of this review are to provide a rationale and potential mechanism for immunosuppression in cancer, and to demonstrate the significance of such immunosuppression in cellular differentiation and tissue regeneration in pathological conditions, and progression of cancer. We have recently shown that increased NK cell function was seen when they were cultured with primary oral squamous carcinoma stem cells (OSCSCs) as compared to their more differentiated oral squamous carcinoma cells (OSCCs). In addition, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), Mesenchymal Stem Cells (hMSCs), dental pulp stem cells (hDPSCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) were significantly more susceptible to NK cell mediated cytotoxicity than their differentiated counterparts or parental cells from which they were derived. We have also reported that inhibition of differentiation or reversion of cells to a less-differentiated phenotype by blocking NFκB or targeted knock down of COX2 augmented NK cell function significantly. Total population of monocytes and those depleted of CD16(+) subsets were able to substantially prevent NK cell mediated lysis of OSCSCs, MSCs and DPSCs. Taken together, our results suggest that stem cells are significant targets of the NK cell cytotoxicity. The concept of split anergy in NK cells and its contribution to tissue repair and regeneration and in tumor resistance and progression will be discussed in this review. Therefore, patients with cancer may benefit from repeated allogeneic NK cell transplantation at the site of the tumor for specific elimination of cancer stem cells.

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