Dominant effector memory characteristics, capacity for dynamic adaptive expansion, and sex bias in the innate Vα24 NKT cell compartment



Vα24 natural killer T (NKT) cells are innate immune cells that recognize self and nonself glycolipids presented by CD1d molecules, and play immunoregulatory roles in autoimmunity and tumorimmunity. We have investigated the circulating Vα24 NKT cells in a large cohort of human subjects. CCR7 CD45RO+ effector memory cells dominated both CD4+ and CD4 NKT subsets, while a minority displayed a central memory phenotype. CD4 central memory NKT cells, however, were atypical in that they largely lacked CD62L expression. Overall, CD4 NKT cells displayed a functional phenotype with effector characteristics, while the CD4+ subset appeared immunoregulatory. Interestingly, NKT cell numbers in blood varied widely between subjects, and elevated numbers of these cells were much more common in women than in men. The CD4+ subset dominated the NKT cell compartment in both sexes, while circulating NKT cell numbers above 0.1% were associated with an expanded CD4 subset. Although NKT cell numbers were generally stable over time, we describe a dynamic fivefold expansion that was associated with a skewing of the NKT CD4+:CD4 ratio that persisted after numbers returned to base line. Thus, the two NKT cell subsets display different properties and dynamics that will influence theirfunction as innate immunoregulatory and effector cells.