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Immunology. 2004 May;112(1):143-52.

Functional characterization of human natural killer cells responding to Mycobacterium bovis bacille Calmette-Guérin.

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Dipartimento di Patologia Sperimentale, Biotecnologie Mediche, Infettivologia ed Epidemiologia, University of Pisa, Pisa, Italy.


The kinetics of activation and induction of several effector functions of human natural killer (NK) cells in response to Mycobacterium bovis bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) were investigated. Owing to the central role of monocytes/macrophages (MM) in the initiation and maintenance of the immune response to pathogens, two different experimental culture conditions were analysed. In the first, monocyte-depleted nylon wool non-adherent (NW) cells from healthy donors were stimulated with autologous MM preinfected with BCG (intracellular BCG). In the second, the NW cells were directly incubated with BCG, which was therefore extracellular. In the presence of MM, CD4+ T lymphocytes were the cell subset mainly expressing the activation marker, CD25, and proliferating with a peak after 7 days of culture. In contrast, in response to extracellular BCG, the peak of the proliferative response was observed after 6 days of stimulation, and CD56+ CD3- cells (NK cells) were the cell subset preferentially involved. Such proliferation of NK cells did not require a prior sensitization to mycobacterial antigens, and appeared to be dependent upon contact between cell populations and bacteria. Following stimulation with extracellular BCG, the majority of interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma)-producing cells were NK cells, with a peak IFN-gamma production at 24-30 hr. Interleukin (IL)-2 and IL-4 were not detectable in NK cells or in CD3+ T lymphocytes at any time tested. IL-12 was not detectable in the culture supernatant of NW cells stimulated with extracellular BCG. Compared to the non-stimulated NW cells, the NW cells incubated for 16-20 hr with BCG induced the highest levels of expression of apoptotic/death marker on the NK-sensitive K562 cell line. BCG also induced expression of the activation marker, CD25, and proliferation, IFN-gamma production and cytotoxic activity, on negatively selected CD56+ CD3- cells. Altogether, the results of this study demonstrate that extracellular mycobacteria activate several NK-cell functions and suggest a possible alternative mechanism of NK-cell activation as the first line of defence against mycobacterial infections.

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