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Activation and function of hepatic NK cells in hepatitis B infection: an underinvestigated innate immune response


Zhigang Tian MD, PhD, School of Life Sciences, University of Science and Technology of China, 443 Huangshan Road, Hefei City, Anhui 230027, China. E-mail:


Summary.  Natural killer (NK) cells are abundant in the normal liver, accounting for around one-third of intrahepatic lymphocytes and are important in the defence against hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection as innate immune responses. In this review, we discuss the mechanisms of hepatic NK cell activity against HBV. Whether directly activated by HBV infection or indirectly activated by other lymphocytes such as NKT cells or antigen-presenting cells (APCs), hepatic NK cells exert their anti-viral functions by natural cytotoxicity and production of high levels of cytokines. However, activated NK cells play an important role in regulating adaptive immune responses by interaction with other lymphocytes such as T, B and APCs. In addition, NK cells may contribute to the lymphocyte-mediated liver injury during HBV infection that was previously considered to be mediated only by CD8+ T cells or/and NKT cells.