The expression of serine protease genes was examined in murine NK cells that were purified by panning spleen cells with PMA. Although unstimulated NK cells were cytolytic, they were found not to express the C11 (chymotrypsin-like) mRNA. Culturing these cells in IL-2 (500 to 800 U/ml) for 5 to 7 days induced both the lytic activities and the protease enzymes by 20- to 30-fold. Concomitant to these activation events, the total steady state mRNA of both C11 and HF (trypsin-like) genes were also elevated. The activation of lysis, serine protease enzymes, and C11 and HF mRNA all peaked around day 5 in culture and was dose dependent. In order to exclude the possibility that PMA synergizes with IL-2 in this system, spleen cells from SCID mice, which contained mainly NK cells, were cultured under the same conditions (800 U/ml IL-2, with or without PMA) and PMA did not appear to enhance the expression of these mRNA. Similarly, IL-2 also induced the lytic activities, enzyme levels, and mRNA in the non-Ag-specific T killer cells isolated from spleens of normal mice. Lytic activity of T killer cells was not as high as the NK cells, however, the addition of PHA into the lytic assay resulted in enhanced lysis comparable to that of NK cells. These results showed that lytic activity increased along with protease enzyme levels and mRNA expression in both NK and resting T cells. Therefore, elevated levels of the protease enzymes could be one mechanism involved in optimal lytic activity of IL-2-induced lymphokine activated killer cells.

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