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Int J Cancer. 2011 Jun 15;128(12):2911-22. doi: 10.1002/ijc.25635. Epub 2010 Oct 19.

Azacytidine impairs NK cell reactivity while decitabine augments NK cell responsiveness toward stimulation.

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Department of Hematology and Oncology, Eberhard Karls University, Tuebingen, Germany.


Azacytidine and decitabine are approved for treatment of acute myeloid leukemias and myelodysplastic syndromes. While clinical responses are attributed to epigenetic effects and induction of apoptosis in malignant cells, these azanucleosides also affect antitumor immune responses. NK cells as components of innate immunity may confine development and progression of cancer. Numerous therapeutic strategies presently aim to reinforce NK reactivity against hematopoietic malignancies. We here comparatively analyzed the effect of the two clinically available azanucleosides and report that NK cytotoxicity and IFN-γ production are significantly impaired by pharmacological concentrations of azacytidine but enhanced by decitabine. This was not due to alterations in the target cells but caused by direct effects on NK cells depending on the chemical modifications by which azanucleosides differ from their physiological analogues. Although azacytidine impaired mRNA synthesis and induced apoptosis in NK cells, decitabine did not per se alter NK cell viability or reactivity but enhanced responsiveness to activating stimuli by inducing transcription of genes involved in NK reactivity. Tantalizingly, these effects were independent of incorporation of the azanucleosides into DNA during cell division. While azacytidine impairs NK antitumor immunity, decitabine augments NK reactivity by yet unidentified mechanisms and may thus serve well in therapeutic strategies combining its effects on malignant cells with its ability to enhance NK functions.

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