Biology and clinical impact of human natural killer cells

Sherif S. Farag, Jeffrey B. VanDeusen, Todd A. Fehniger, Michael A. Caligiuri

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Natural killer (NK) cells, through elaboration of cytokines and cytolytic activity, are critical to host defense against invading organisms and malignant transformation. Two subsets of human NK cells are identified according to surface CD56 expression. CD56dim cells compose the majority of NK cells and function as effectors of natural cytotoxicity and antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity, whereas CD56bright cells have immunomodulatory function through secretion of cytokines. For a long time, NK cells have held promise for cancer immunotherapy because, unlike T-lymphocytes, NK cells can lyse tumor cells without tumor-specific antigen recognition. To date, NK cell therapy, largely focused on in vivo expansion and activation with cytokines, has met with only modest success. However, recent understanding of the importance of NK receptors (NKR) for recognition and lysis of tumor cells while normal cells are spared suggests novel therapeutic strategies. The balance of inhibitory and activating signals through surface receptors that recognize major histocompatibility complex class I and class I-like molecules on target cells determines whether NK cells activate killing. Identification of NKR ligands and their level of expression on normal and neoplastic cells has important implications for the rational design of immunotherapy strategies for cancer. We review recent development in the biology and clinical relevance of NK cells in cancer immunotherapy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-17
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Hematology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2003


  • ADCC
  • IL-15
  • IL-2
  • Immunotherapy
  • NK cells


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