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Unrelated cord blood transplantation (UCBT) after a reduced intensity conditioning regimen (RIC) has extended the use of UCB in elderly patients and those with co-morbidities without an HLA-identical donor, although post-transplant relapse remains a concern in high-risk acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients. HLA incompatibilities between donor and recipient might enhance the alloreactivity of natural killer (NK) cells after allogeneic hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation (HSCT). We studied the reconstitution of NK cells and KIR-L mismatch in 54 patients who underwent a RIC-UCBT for AML in CR in a prospective phase II clinical trial. After RIC-UCBT, NK cells displayed phenotypic features of both activation and immaturity. Restoration of their polyfunctional capacities depended on the timing of their acquisition of phenotypic markers of maturity. The incidence of treatment-related mortality (TRM) was correlated with low CD16 expression (P = 0.043) and high HLA-DR expression (P = 0.0008), whereas overall survival was associated with increased frequency of NK-cell degranulation (P = 0.001). These features reflect a general impairment of the NK licensing process in HLA-mismatched HSCT and may aid the development of future strategies for selecting optimal UCB units and enhancing immune recovery.