Natural killer cell biology: An update and future directions

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Natural killer (NK) cells constitute a minor subset of normal lymphocytes that initiate innate immune responses toward tumor and virus-infected cells. They can mediate spontaneous cytotoxicity toward these abnormal cells and rapidly secrete numerous cytokines and chemokines to promote subsequent adaptive immune responses. Significant progress has been made in the past 2 decades to improve our understanding of NK cell biology. Here we review recent discoveries, including a better comprehension of the “education” of NK cells to achieve functional competence during their maturation and the discovery of “memory” responses by NK cells, suggesting that they might also contribute to adaptive immunity. The improved understanding of NK cell biology has forged greater awareness that these cells play integral early roles in immune responses. In addition, several promising clinical therapies have been used to exploit NK cell functions in treating patients with cancer. As our molecular understanding improves, these and future immunotherapies should continue to provide promising strategies to exploit the unique functions of NK cells to treat cancer, infections, and other pathologic conditions.

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