Structural insights into activation of antiviral NK cell responses


Correspondence to:

Roland K. Strong

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Mail Stop A3-025

1100 Fairview Avenue North

Seattle, WA 98109, USA

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Natural killer (NK) cells are key components of innate immune responses, providing surveillance against cells undergoing tumorigenesis or infection, by viruses or internal pathogens. NK cells can directly eliminate compromised cells and regulate downstream responses of the innate and acquired immune systems through the release of immune modulators (cytokines, interferons). The importance of the role NK cells play in immune defense was demonstrated originally in herpes viral infections, usually mild or localized, which become severe and life threatening in NK-deficient patients [1]. NK cell effector functions are governed by balancing opposing signals from a diverse array of activating and inhibitory receptors. Many NK receptors occur in paired activating and inhibitory isoforms and recognize major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I proteins with varying degrees of peptide specificity. Structural studies have made considerable inroads into understanding the molecular mechanisms employed to broadly recognize multiple MHC ligands or specific pathogen-associated antigens and the strategies employed by viruses to thwart these defenses. Although many details of NK development, signaling, and integration remain mysterious, it is clear that NK receptors are key components of a system exquisitely tuned to sense any dysregulation in MHC class I expression, or the expression of certain viral antigens, resulting in the elimination of affected cells.