The role of natural killer (NK) cells in the natural resistance of mice to infections by several viruses was examined. Mice were specifically depleted of NK cells by i.v. injection of rabbit antiserum to asialo GM1, a neutral glycosphingolipid present at high concentrations on the surface of NK cells. Control mice were left untreated or were injected with normal rabbit serum. Four to 6 hr later, these mice were infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), mouse hepatitis virus (MHV), murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV), or vaccinia virus. The mice were sacrificed 3 days post-infection and assayed for virus in liver and spleen, spleen NK cell activity, and plasma interferon (IFN). All mice treated with anti-asialo GM1 antibody had drastically reduced NK cell-mediated lysis. Correlating with NK cell depletion, these mice had significantly higher (up to 500-fold) titers of MCMV, MHV, or vaccinia virus in their livers and spleens as compared to control mice. NK cell-depleted MCMV and MHV-infected mice had higher levels of plasma IFN than controls, correlating with the higher virus titers. These NK cell-depleted, virus-infected mice had more extensive hepatitis, assayed by the number of inflammatory foci in their livers, as compared to control virus-infected mice; these foci were also larger and contained more degenerating liver cells than those in control mice. In contrast to the results obtained with MHV, MCMV, and vaccinia virus, NK cell depletion had no effect on virus titers in the early stages of acute LCMV infection or during persistent LCMV infection. Mice depleted of NK cells had similar amounts of LCMV in their spleens and similar plasma IFN levels. Because this antibody to asialo GM1 does not impair other detectable immunologic mechanisms, these data support the hypothesis that NK cells act as a natural resistance mechanism to a number of virus infections, but suggest that their relative importance may vary from virus to virus.

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