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J Leukoc Biol. 2011 Jan;89(1):113-25. doi: 10.1189/jlb.0410200. Epub 2010 Oct 12.

Substance P inhibits natural killer cell cytotoxicity through the neurokinin-1 receptor.

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The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Pediatrics, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


SP is a potent neuroimmunomodulator that functions through ligating members of the neurokinin receptor family, one of which, NK1R, is widely expressed in immune cells. As in humans, circulating SP levels are increased in pathologic states associated with impairment of NK cell functions, such as depression and HIV infection, we hypothesized that SP has a direct, inhibitory effect upon NK cells. We have studied a clonal human NK cell line (YTS) as well as ex vivo human NK cells and have determined that truncated and full-length NK1R isoforms are expressed in and SP bound by ex vivo NK cells and the YTS NK cell line. Incubation of YTS cells with 10⁻⁶ M SP and ex vivo NK cells with 10⁻⁵ M SP inhibited cytotoxic ability by ∼20% and reduced degranulation. This inhibitory effect upon cytotoxicity was partially prevented by the NK1R antagonist CP96,345. The treatment of YTS or ex vivo NK cells with SP neither down-modulated NCR expression nor affected triggering receptor-induced NF-κB activation. Preincubation of YTS cells with SP, however, did abbreviate the typically prolonged intracellular calcium increase induced by target cell engagement and reduced triggering receptor-induced pERK. Thus, SP has the potential to regulate NK cell functions and acts downstream from neurokinin receptors to modulate NK cell activation signaling. This mechanism may contribute to impairment of NK cell function in certain disease states associated with increased circulating SP. Antagonism of this system may present an opportunity to augment NK cell function therapeutically in selected human diseases.

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