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Infect Immun. 2012 Jan;80(1):234-42. doi: 10.1128/IAI.05439-11. Epub 2011 Oct 17.

Antibacterial role for natural killer cells in host defense to Bacillus anthracis.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Sealy Center for Vaccine Development, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, USA.


Natural killer (NK) cells have innate antibacterial activity that could be targeted for clinical interventions for infectious disease caused by naturally occurring or weaponized bacterial pathogens. To determine a potential role for NK cells in immunity to Bacillus anthracis, we utilized primary human and murine NK cells, in vitro assays, and in vivo NK cell depletion in a murine model of inhalational anthrax. Our results demonstrate potent antibacterial activity by human NK cells against B. anthracis bacilli within infected autologous monocytes. Surprisingly, NK cells also mediate moderate antibacterial effects on extracellular vegetative bacilli but do not have activity against extracellular or intracellular spores. The immunosuppressive anthrax lethal toxin impairs NK gamma interferon (IFN-γ) expression, but neither lethal nor edema toxin significantly alters the viability or cytotoxic effector function of NK cells. Compared to human NK cells, murine NK cells have a similar, though less potent, activity against intracellular and extracellular B. anthracis. The in vivo depletion of murine NK cells does not alter animal survival following intranasal infection with B. anthracis spores in our studies but significantly increases the bacterial load in the blood of infected animals. Our studies demonstrate that NK cells participate in the innate immune response against B. anthracis and suggest that immune modulation to augment NK cell function in early stages of anthrax should be further explored in animal models as a clinical intervention strategy.

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