Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is characterized by an acquired immune dysfunction, which may underlie the hampered efficacy of cellular immunotherapy. Most data on dampened immune responses in CLL come from studies investigating CLL and T cell interactions. Natural killer (NK) cells may be an attractive alternative source of effector cells in immunotherapy in CLL, provided that functionality is retained within the CLL micro-environment. Despite their important role in anti-tumor responses, NK cells are not extensively characterized in CLL. Here, we studied the expression of activating and inhibitory receptors on CLL-derived and healthy control (HC) NK cells, and their functional response towards several stimuli.NK cells from CLL patients have an increased maturation stage, with an expansion of NKG2C+ NK cells in CMV seropositive individuals. The cytotoxicity receptor NKG2D is downregulated, and the killing capacity through this receptor was markedly reduced in CLL-derived NK cells. In contrast, activation via CD16 (FCγRIII) led to adequate activation and functional responses in CLL-derived NK cells. These findings indicate that NK cells in CLL are not intrinsically defect and still perform effector functions upon adequate activating signaling. Clinical relevance of this finding was shown by treatment with novel nanobody-Fc constructs, which induced cytotoxic responses in both CLL- and HC-derived NK cells via CD16. Our results show that NK cells, in contrast to the T cell compartment, retain their function within the CLL micro-environment, provided that they receive an adequate activating signal. These findings warrant future studies on NK cell mediated immunotherapeutic strategies in CLL.
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© 2019 the Author(s). Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc.