Perforin and granzymes are proteins thought to play a relevant role in cell-mediated cytotoxicity. These molecules are constitutively expressed in NK cells and their level of expression in cytotoxic T lymphocytes is regulated by several cytokines. We analyzed the mechanisms by which cytokines and cellular ligands known to modulate NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity affect the expression of the mRNA encoding granzyme A and B and perforin in NK cells. Our data indicate that IL-2 and IL-12 induce increased accumulation of both perforin and, to a higher degree, granzyme B mRNA. In contrast, binding of target cells or immune complexes up-regulates expression of granzyme B mRNA without altering that of perforin. Results of in situ hybridization experiments confirm that mRNA for both molecules are expressed at low levels in most NK cells, and that both are induced to accumulate by the two cytokines in the majority of the cells. The mechanisms by which IL-2 and IL-12 regulate expression of the two molecules are, in part, distinct: both cytokines increase the transcriptional rate of the encoding genes, whereas only IL-2 acts also at a post-transcriptional level to increase the stability of their mRNA.

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