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BMC Immunol. 2009 Aug 27;10:46. doi: 10.1186/1471-2172-10-46.

Interleukin-21 induces the differentiation of human umbilical cord blood CD34-lineage- cells into pseudomature lytic NK cells.

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  • 1Department of Gynaecology, Catholic University Medical School, Rome, Italy.



Umbilical cord blood (UCB) is enriched with transplantable CD34+ cells. In addition to CD34-expressing haematopoietic stem cells (HSC), human UCB contains a rare population of CD34-lineage- cells endowed with the ability to differentiate along the T/NK pathway in response to interleukin (IL)-15 and a stromal cell support. IL-21 is a crucial regulator of NK cell function, whose influence on IL-15-induced differentiation of CD34-lineage- cells has not been investigated previously. The present study was designed and conducted to address whether IL-21 might replace the stromal cell requirements and foster the IL-15-induced NK differentiation of human UCB CD34-lineage- cells.


CD34-lineage- cells were maintained in liquid culture with Flt3-L and SCF, with the addition of IL-15 and IL-21, either alone or in combination. Cultures were established in the absence of feeder cells or serum supplementation. Cytokine-treated cells were used to evaluate cell surface phenotype, expression of molecular determinants of lymphoid/NK cell differentiation, secretion of IFN-gamma, GM-CSF, TNF-alpha and CCL3/MIP-1alpha, and cytolytic activity against NK-sensitive tumour cell targets. CD34-lineage- cells proliferated vigorously in response to IL-15 and IL-21 but not to IL-21 alone, and up-regulated phosphorylated Stat1 and Stat3 proteins. CD34-lineage- cells expanded by IL-21 in combination with IL-15 acquired lymphoid morphology and killer-cell immunoglobulin-like receptor (KIR)-CD56+CD16-/+ phenotype, consistent with pseudo-mature NK cells. IL-21/IL-15-differentiated cells expressed high levels of mRNA for Bcl-2, GATA-3 and Id2, a master switch required for NK-cell development, and harboured un-rearranged TCRgamma genes. From a functional standpoint, IL-21/IL-15-treated cells secreted copious amounts of IFN-gamma, GM-CSF and CCL3/MIP-1alpha, and expressed cell surface CD107a upon contact with NK-sensitive tumour targets, a measure of exocytosis of NK secretory granules.


This study underpins a novel role for IL-21 in the differentiation of pseudo-mature lytic NK cells in a synergistic context with IL-15, and identifies a potential strategy to expand functional NK cells for immunotherapy.

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