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Summary: In the absence of sufficient signaling by their HLA class I-specific inhibitory receptors, human natural killer (NK) cells become activated and display potent cytotoxicity against cells that are either HLA class I negative or deficient. This indicates that the NK receptors responsible for the induction of cytotoxicity recognize ligands on target cells different from HLA class I molecules. On this basis, the process of NK-cell triggering can be considered as a mainly non-MHC-restricted mechanism. The recent identification of a group of NK-specific triggering surface molecules has allowed a first series of pioneering studies on the functional/molecular characteristics of such receptors. The first three members of a receptor family that has been termed natural cytotoxicity receptors (NCR) are represented by NKp46, NKp44 and NKp30. These receptors are strictly confined to NK cells, and their engagement induces a strong activation of NK-mediated cytolysis. A direct correlation exists between the surface density of NCR and the ability of NK cells to kill various target cells. Importantly, mAb-mediated blocking of these receptors has been shown to suppress cytotoxicity against most NK-susceptible target cells. However, the process of NK-cell triggering during target cell lysis may also depend on the concerted action of NCR and other triggering receptors, such as NKG2D, or surface molecules, including 2B4 and NKp80, that appear to function as co-receptors rather than as true receptors. Notably, a dysfunction of 2B4 has been associated with a severe form of immunodeficiency termed X-linked lymphoproliferative disease. Future studies will clarify whether also the altered expression and/or function of other NK-triggering molecules may represent a possible cause of immunological disorders.

This work was supported by grants awarded by Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro (A.I.R.C.), Istituto Superiore di Sanità (I.S.S.), Ministero della Sanità, and Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica (M.U.R.S.T.) and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Progetto Finalizzato Biotecnologie. The financial support of Telethon-Italy (grant no. E.0892) is gratefully acknowledged.