A discrete subpopulation of lymphocytes sharing several phenotypic characteristics with natural killer (NK) cells was identified within the circulating pool of human lymphocytes that bear the T helper marker Leu-3. This Leu-3+ subpopulation of cells formed cell conjugates with the NK target cell lines K562 and MOLT-4, but did not bind to mouse myeloma and hybridoma cell lines that are insensitive to NK cells. The Leu-3+ lymphocytes binding to NK cell targets contained cytoplasmic granules similar in ultrastructure and cytochemistry to those previously defined in granular lymphocytes with NK function, except that the granules in Leu-3+ cells were smaller and fewer in number. Unlike classical NK cells, however, the granular Leu-3+ cells did not kill the target cells to which they bound, even after treatment with interferon. The proportion of granular Leu-3+ cells with the capacity to bind to NK cell targets was approximately 7% at birth and increased to approximately 21% of the Leu-3+ cells in adults. These observations suggest the possibility of a lineal relationship between the granular Leu-3+ cells and granular Leu-3- cells with NK capability.

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