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Blood. 1998 Nov 15;92(10):3647-57.

Flt3 ligand promotes the generation of a distinct CD34(+) human natural killer cell progenitor that responds to interleukin-15.

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  • 1Divisions of Human Cancer Genetics, Hematology/Oncology, and Surgical Oncology, Department of Pathology, and the Comprehensive Cancer Center of The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.


Interleukin-15 (IL-15) is produced by human bone marrow (BM) stromal cells and can induce CD34(+) hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) to differentiate into CD56(+)CD3(-) natural killer (NK) cells in the absence of stromal cells. IL-15 mediates its effects by signaling through the beta and gammac chains of the IL-2/15 receptor (R). The c-kit ligand (KL), also produced by stromal cells, enhances the expansion of NK cells from CD34(+) HPCs in the presence of IL-15, but alone has no ability to differentiate NK cells. Mice deficient in KL do not appear to have a quantitative deficiency in NK cells, suggesting that other stromal cell factors may contribute to NK cell expansion. Flt3 ligand (FL) is also produced by BM stromal cells and has homology with KL. Furthermore, mice with a targeted disruption of the FL gene have reduced numbers of NK cells. We evaluated here the effects of FL on human NK cell development and expansion from CD34(+) HPCs. Like KL, FL significantly enhanced the expansion of NK cells from CD34(+) HPCs in the presence of IL-15, compared with IL-15 alone. However, FL alone had no effect on NK cell differentiation. We therefore explored the mechanism by which FL promotes IL-15-mediated NK cell development. FL was found to induce IL-2/15Rbeta (CD122) expression on CD34(bright) HPCs. The CD34(bright) CD122(+) cell coexpressed CD38, but lacked expression of CD7, CD56, NK cell receptors (NKRs), or cytotoxic activity in the absence of IL-15. Using limiting dilution analysis in the presence of IL-15 alone, we demonstrated that the FL-induced CD34(bright)CD122(+) HPCs had an NK cell precursor frequency 20- to 60-fold higher than the CD34(dim/neg)CD122(-) HPCs and 65- to 235-fold higher than fresh CD34(+) HPCs. KL had similar effects as FL, but induced a significantly lower percentage of CD34(bright)CD122(+) cells (P </=.01). Both FL and KL also increased IL-15R transcript in CD34(+) HPCs. Culture of CD34(+) HPCs in FL or KL, followed by culture in IL-15 alone, induced expression of both C-type lectin and Ig-superfamily NKRs on CD56(+) cells. These data collectively support a role for FL in early human NK cell development. FL or KL generate a unique CD34(bright) CD122(+)CD38(+) human NK cell intermediate from CD34(+) HPCs that lacks NK features yet is IL-15-responsive. IL-15 is then required for the induction of CD56 and NKRs, LGL morphology, cytotoxic activity, and the ability to produce abundant cytokines and chemokines.

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