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Int J Oncol. 2005 Jul;27(1):5-47.

Human natural killer cells: a comprehensive review.

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Cancer Institute, St. Joseph's Hospital, Tampa, FL 33607-6387, USA.


The senior author of this comprehensive review observed and reported in 1969 that his lymphocytes killed allogeneic tumor cells in vitro. Some of his research associates and technicians and other healthy individuals also yielded such killer lymphocytes. The team considered pre-immunization to cancer occurring in individuals after in-family or professional exposure to patients with cancer (in an era when the concept of viral etiology of cancer was receiving major support); or that lymphocytes can acquire through blastic transformation immune reactivity to allogeneic cells anew in vitro. The phenomenon was eventually referred to as 'lymphocytes practicing Burnet's immunosurveillance.' Project site visitors of the USA NCI first viewed these observations as a matter of 'in vitro artifacts' being in opposition to strong tumor- specific cytotoxicity of tumor-bearing patients' lymphocytes recognized in the vast majority of other assays. After NCI funds were released for intramural studies on the phenomenon of non-specific cytotoxicity by lymphocytes, recipients (other than the senior author) of these NCI funds later characterized (1973-1975) the 'indiscriminately' cytotoxic lymphocyte populations as those of 'natural killer (NK) cells.' In this article, the original observations made in 1969-1971 are reviewed based on genuine material preserved by the senior author and are explained in view of recent discoveries that were not available at the time of the original observations. NK cells display a fascinating history arising first in urochordates during the cambrian explosion. At that level, NK cells protected their hosts from incompatible cell colony fusions and against intracellular, especially viral, pathogens. Since then, viruses evolved evasive maneuvers to escape NK cell attack on the infected cells. NK cells persisted after the evolution of adaptive immunity in cartilaginous fish fitting seamlessly into the new system. In mammals, NK cells assumed the role of chief arbitrators between the fetal trophoblast and maternal immune reactions to the semi-allograft fetus. Tumors induce in NK cells the same (inactivating; mediating Th2-type immunity) reactions the fetal trophoblast engenders in utero, but NK cells may overcome the host's tolerance to its tumor and kill tumor cells, especially when converted into lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells by molecular mediators of Th1-type immunity. The authors prepare and utilize LAK cells and IL-2 for adoptive immunotherapy of patients with metastatic melanoma and kidney carcinoma. A patient with malignant ascites due to ovarian carcinoma entered remission on LAK cell therapy. Just as dendritic cells, the major antigen presentors, may undergo malignant transformation, NK cells are also subject to transformation into FasL-producer virulent lymphoma-leukemia cells. The senior author reported in 1970 a patient with 'lymphosarcoma cell leukemia' whose circulating lymphoma cells killed indiscriminately human sarcoma and carcinoma cells. The exemplary case history of another patient with NK cell lymphoma-leukemia treated by the authors is presented.

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