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Natural killer (NK) cells can kill target cells by either necrotic or apoptotic mechanisms. Using the 51Cr-release assay to measure necrotic death of target cells, neonatal NK cells had low NK activity (K562 targets) and high lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) activity (Daudi targets) compared with adult cells, as has been previously reported. Using a 125I-deoxyuridine (125I-UdR) release assay, cord cells were shown to also have higher apoptotic LAK activity against YAC-1 target cells. Interleukin-4 (IL-4) inhibited interleukin-2 (IL-2)-induced necrotic killing of target cells by adult effectors but had no such inhibitory effect on cord cells. In contrast, IL-4 inhibited both adult and cord LAK cytotoxicity of YAC-1 target cells by apoptotic mechanisms with higher suppression observed in cord cell preparations. Using a colorimetric substrate conversion assay, IL-2 induced higher, and IL-4 had a more significant suppressive effect on, cord cell granzyme B enzyme activity compared with adult cells, paralleling apoptosis cytotoxicity data. Co-culture of either adult or cord LAK cells with IL-4 had a similar inhibitory effect on granzyme B protein expression, as detected by Western blotting. In contrast, IL-4 did not inhibit perforin expression, thereby defining IL-4 as a cytokine that can differentially regulate the NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity processes of apoptosis and necrosis. The differential sensitivity of cord cells to cytokine regulation of cytotoxicity may also have implications for cord blood transplantations, as NK cells are known to function as an effector cell in both graft-versus-host disease and in the graft-versus-leukaemia phenomena.