Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are pattern-recognition receptors responsible for triggering cells of innate immunity. In this study we investigated the expression and function of TLRs 3 and 9 in human natural killer (NK) cells. In the presence of IL-12, freshly isolated NK cells responded to double-stranded RNA or unmethylated CpG DNA and expressed CD69 and CD25 activation markers. Because both markers were expressed by virtually all NK cells, this would suggest that most of them can be triggered by TLRs. Remarkably, NK cell stimulation also resulted in the induction of their functional program as revealed by IFN-gamma and tumor necrosis factor-alpha release and by up-regulation of cytolytic activity against tumor cells. IL-8 could efficiently substitute IL-12 in supporting NK cell responses to TLR-mediated stimulation. Importantly, freshly isolated NK cells acquired the ability to lyse immature dendritic cells after stimulation with double-stranded RNA and IL-12. However, responses to these stimuli were not restricted to fresh NK cells, because significant responses were also detected in polyclonal NK cells cultured in the presence of exogenous IL-2 for several weeks. The analysis of NK cell clones revealed some degree of heterogeneity in the ability to respond to TLR stimulation also among NK clones derived from a single donor. These data suggest that stimuli acting on TLR not only activate immature dendritic cells to release IL-12 but also render NK cells capable of receiving triggering signals from pathogen-associated molecules, thus exerting a regulatory control on the early steps of innate immune responses against infectious agents.
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