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Keywords:

  • autoimmune diseases;
  • innate immunity;
  • natural killer cells;
  • systemic lupus erythematosus

Summary

Natural killer (NK) cells have been implicated in tumour surveillance and in the early control of several microbial infections. In autoimmune disease their involvement in these processes has been evaluated in animal models, with conflicting results. Both a disease-controlling and a disease-promoting role have been suggested. In human autoimmune disease only a few studies, mainly descriptive, have demonstrated qualitative and quantitative modification of NK cells. These changes were observed on blood- or tissue-infiltrating NK cells. Taken together with our expanding knowledge of the genetical variability of NK cell receptors and NK cell physiology, these findings pave the way for the dissection of the role of NK cells in human autoimmune diseases. NK cells may be directly involved in these diseases through their potential autoreactivity or through their interaction with dendritic cells, macrophages or T lymphocytes, thereby inducing excessive inflammation or favouring the adaptive autoimmune response. Thus, NK cells may be implicated in the onset, the maintenance or the progression of autoimmune diseases. Some reports also suggest the involvement of NK cells in the treatment of human autoimmune disease by biotherapies. All these observations suggest that NK cells are involved in the complex processes of autoimmune diseases. Nevertheless, further careful analysis of NK cells at different steps of these diseases, in different tissues and through combined genetical and functional studies will contribute to a better understanding of their role in autoimmune diseases. This knowledge might allow the development of new therapeutic strategies based on NK cells for the treatment of some autoimmune diseases.