Armed with potent cytotoxic and immunostimulatory effector functions, natural killer (NK) cells have the potential to cause significant damage to normal self cells unless controlled by self-tolerance mechanisms. NK cells identify and attack target cells based on integration of signals from activation and inhibitory receptors, whose ligands exhibit complex expression and/or binding patterns. Preservation of NK cell self-tolerance must therefore go beyond mere engagement of inhibitory receptors during effector functions. Herein, we review recent work that has uncovered a number of mechanisms to ensure self-tolerance of NK cells. For example, licensing of NK cells allows only NK cells that can engage self-MHC to become functionally competent, or licensed. The molecular mechanism of this phenomenon appears to require signaling by receptors that were originally identified in effector inhibition. However, the nature of the signaling event has not yet been defined, but new interpretations of several published experiments provide valuable clues. In addition, several other cell-intrinsic and -extrinsic mechanisms of NK cell tolerance are discussed, including activation receptor cooperation and synergy, cytokine stimulation, and the opposing roles of accessory and regulatory cells. Finally, NK cell tolerance is discussed as it relates to the clinic, such as KIR-HLA disease associations, tumor immunotherapy, and fetal tolerance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-79
Number of pages53
JournalAdvances in Immunology
Issue numberC
StatePublished - 2009


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