Although considerable data have recently been accumulated regarding the functional role of natural killer (NK) cells, relatively little is known about the factors that regulate NK cell activity. In these studies, we evaluated the role of interleukin 2 (IL 2) and the expression of the IL 2 receptor in the activation and proliferation of human NK cloned cell lines. By using a series of cloned cell lines, we were able to analyze homogeneous populations of NK cells that ordinarily comprise only a small fraction of peripheral blood lymphocytes and are extremely heterogeneous with respect to phenotypes and cytotoxic specificities. In comparison with several T cell clones, we found a much lower density of IL 2 receptors on NK clones, regardless of whether or not these cloned cells had a mature T cell phenotype. Correspondingly, NK clones needed a 10-fold higher concentration of recombinant IL 2 for maximal proliferation. Moreover, blocking studies with specific monoclonal IL 2 receptor antibodies indicated that IL 2 is both necessary and sufficient to induce the proliferation of NK clones. Because the majority of peripheral blood NK cells and NK clones express the T11 E rosette receptor antigen, which has been shown to be an antigen-independent activation pathway for T cells, we were able to study the role of monoclonal anti-T11 antibodies in the activation of various NK clones for which a specific target antigen is not known. In contrast to T cell clones, the induction of IL 2 receptor expression after T11 activation was possible only for some NK clones such as JT10 and JT3, but not for CNK5. Before activation, the IL 2 receptor expression of NK clones was confined to cells in the G2 - M phase, but after T11 activation the more pronounced IL 2 receptor expression became independent of the cell cycle. With respect to the direct proliferative effect of anti-T11 activation that has been noted with T cell clones, only the T3+ (JT10) and not the T3- NK clones could be directly stimulated. Nevertheless, IL 2 receptor expression could be triggered on some T3- clones such as JT3. Because T11-induced proliferation of T cells has been shown to be dependent on both the expression of the IL 2 receptor and on the interaction of this receptor with IL 2, it is proposed that the different responses of NK cells to T11 activation may reflect the ability of the individual clone to produce endogenous IL 2, as well as its ability to express the IL 2 receptor.

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