We have studied the functional characteristics and clinical importance of the natural killer (NK) cytotoxicity of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMNC) from patients with ulcerative colitis. Normal NK activity was observed in PBMNC from patients with inactive disease, but a pronounced decrease was found in those with active disease. Clinical change from active to inactive disease was associated with enhancement of the depressed NK activity. The impairment of NK cytotoxicity found in patients with active disese could not be ascribed to a deficient number of NK cells as the amounts of HNK-1+, CD16+ (Leu 11), and CD11b (OKM1) cells in PBMNC were within normal ranges. This defective cytotoxic PBMNC activity was normalised by short term (18 hour) incubation with recombinant interleukin 2 (rIL-2). Moreover, long term (5 day) incubation of these effector cells with rIL-2 induced strong cytotoxic activity against NK resistant and NK sensitive target cells in patients with active and inactive disease. We also found that both precursors and effectors of cytotoxic activity promoted by short term and long term incubation with rIL-2 of PBMNC from the patients showed the phenotype of NK cells (CD16+, CD3-). Taken together, these results show that active ulcerative colitis is associated with a defective function of NK cells that is found to be normal in the inactive stage of the disease. The possible pathogenic and therapeutic implications of these findings are discussed.
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