The NKH1 Ag is expressed on all cells in human peripheral blood capable of mediating spontaneous non-MHC restricted cytolytic function (i.e., natural killing). The majority of NK cells do not express CD3 Ag and do not express TCR gene products. However, approximately 20 to 25% of NKH1+ cells coexpress CD3 and TCR proteins. Both NKH1+CD3+ and NKH1+CD3- effectors can proliferate in response to IL-2 which also results in enhancement of cytolytic function. In the present studies, we examined thymocytes after incubation with rIL-2 for the presence of NKH1+ cells and for the development of non-MHC restricted cytolytic function. NKH1+ cells and NK activity could not be detected in fresh thymus. After culture with rIL-2 only, NK activity appeared in 3 days, reached a maximum after 7 days, and was effective against a panel of NK-sensitive targets. NK activity was correlated with the expression of NKH1 on the surface of in vitro proliferating thymocytes and immunofluorescent cell sorting demonstrated that almost all cytolytic activity was mediated by NKH1+ cells. As expected given the thymic origin of these cells, the majority of NKH1+ cells in culture expressed CD3. However, all cultures contained NKH1+CD3- effector cells which represent 15 to 40% of the NKH1+ population. As in peripheral blood, both NKH1+CD3- and NKH1+CD3+ exhibited non-MHC-restricted cytotoxicity, but only CD3+ effectors could be inhibited by anti-T3 mAb. These findings demonstrate that rIL-2 alone can induce subpopulations of thymocytes to proliferate, to express the NKH1 marker and become NK active in vitro. Furthermore, they suggest that the thymus which plays a role in the differentiation of NKH1+CD3+ NK effectors may also play a role in the differentiation or maturation of NKH1+CD3- NK effectors.

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