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Front Immunol. 2013 Jun 21;4:159. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2013.00159. eCollection 2013.

Natural killer cells in asthma.

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Institut für Experimentelle Immunologie und Hepatologie, Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf , Hamburg , Germany ; Department of Medicine, Brain-Body Institute, McMaster University , Hamilton, ON , Canada.


The worldwide prevalence, morbidity, and mortality of asthma have dramatically increased over the last few decades and there is a clear need to identify new effective therapeutic and prophylactic strategies. Despite high numbers of NK cells in the lung and their ability to generate a variety of immunomodulatory mediators, the potential of NK cells as therapeutic targets in allergic airway disease has been largely overlooked. The fact that IgE, acting through FcγRIII, can activate NK cells resulting in cytokine/chemokine production implies that NK cells may contribute to IgE-mediated allergic responses. Indeed, current evidence suggests that NK cells can promote allergic airway responses during sensitization and ongoing inflammation. In animal models, increased NK cells are observed in the lung following antigen challenge and depletion of the cells before immunization inhibits allergic airway inflammation. Moreover, in asthmatics, NK cell phenotype is altered and may contribute to the promotion of a pro-inflammatory Th2-type environment. Conversely, driving NK cells toward an IFN-γ-secreting phenotype can reduce features of the allergic airway response in animal models. However, we have limited knowledge of the signals that drive the development of distinct subsets and functional phenotypes of NK cells in the lung and thus the role and therapeutic potential of NK cells in the allergic airway remains unclear. Here we review the potentially diverse role of NK cells in allergic airway disease, identify gaps in current knowledge, and discuss the potential of modulating NK cell function as a treatment strategy in asthma.


airway inflammation; asthma; asthma exacerbation; natural killer cells; therapeutic potential of NK cells

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