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J Immunol. 1992 Sep 15;149(6):1876-80.

Expression of cytoplasmic CD3 epsilon proteins in activated human adult natural killer (NK) cells and CD3 gamma, delta, epsilon complexes in fetal NK cells. Implications for the relationship of NK and T lymphocytes.

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  • 1DNAX Research Institute for Molecular and Cellular Biology, Palo Alto, CA 94304.


NK cells have been defined as CD3-, CD16+, and/or CD56+ lymphocytes that mediate MHC-unrestricted cytotoxicity against certain tumors and virus-infected cells. Although CD3 epsilon transcripts have been detected in some NK clones, it has generally been thought that NK cells do not express CD3 proteins other than zeta which is associated with CD16 (Fc gamma RIII). We demonstrate that adult peripheral blood NK cell lines and clones express cytoplasmic CD3 epsilon proteins, but not CD3 delta or gamma. CD3 epsilon proteins were detected by immunoprecipitation, Western blot analysis, and immunofluorescence using antiserum directed against the cytoplasmic domain of CD3 epsilon. Although resting, adult peripheral blood NK cells have essentially undetectable levels of CD3 epsilon protein, expression was increased substantially after activation. In contrast to adult NK cells, NK cell clones established from human fetal liver express CD3 gamma, delta, and epsilon protein subunits that associate and form CD3 epsilon, gamma and CD3 epsilon, delta complexes in the cytoplasm, but are apparently unable to be transported to the cell surface. These results indicate that expression of CD3 gamma delta epsilon subunits is not restricted to T lymphocytes and supports the possibility that NK and T cells may be derived from common origins.

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