• cell activation;
  • human;
  • interleukin-2;
  • interleukin-21;
  • natural killer cells


Interleukin-21 (IL-21) is a cytokine with pleiotropic effects on various cell types including dendritic cells, B cells, T cells and natural killer (NK) cells. To evaluate if IL-21 affects human NK cell subpopulations in a similar fashion, functional studies were performed on CD56dim and CD56bright NK cells, both bearing IL-21 receptors at identical densities. Stimulation with IL-21 strongly induced proliferation of CD56bright NK cells and cytotoxicity against K562 target cells was preferentially augmented in CD56dim NK cells. In contrast, stimulation with IL-2 and IL-21 alone or in combination failed to induce interferon-γ and tumour necrosis factor-α production in the two NK cell subsets. Intracellular analysis of signal transducer and activator of transcription (STAT) proteins revealed that IL-21 by itself induces phosphorylation of STAT1 and STAT3 in CD56dim NK cells, and to an even higher degree in CD56bright NK cells. In this CD56bright NK cell population alone, IL-2 weakly phosphorylated STAT1 and STAT3, which was further increased when cells were treated with the combination of both cytokines. In contrast, STAT5 was strongly phosphorylated only in CD56bright NK cells by low-dose IL-2, while IL-21 did not affect STAT5 at all. In summary, we present data indicating that the NK-cell-directed cytokines IL-2 and IL-21 not only affect functions in NK cell subpopulations differently but can also act additively.