Epigenetic Regulation of Natural Killer Cell Receptor Genes

The innate immune system, unlike the adaptive immune system, does not first require exposure to a foreign substance before immunity can be developed. Natural killer (NK) cells—a subset of white blood cells—make up a major part of the innate immune system. NK cells are considered a first line of defence in the body as they can recognize and destroy cells that have been altered, such as in the case of virus-infected or tumour cells and also foreign cells. This recognition is through the interaction of receptors on the surface of NK cells, with the receptor molecules called MHC class-1, expressed on the surface of target cells. The absence or alteration of numbers of MHC class-1 on abnormal target cells results in their destruction by NK cells. In both humans and mice, there is great variability in the number and combination of receptors on individual NK cells. Furthermore, it has recently become evident that the receptor repertoire of NK cells can change in response to various stimuli. Building on her previous MSFHR-funded work, Arefeh Rouhi is studying the mechanisms that control these variations among NK cells. Understanding how NK receptors are controlled is critical to the interpretation of how the repertoire is modified in response to infection and tumour cells, and the response of NK cells to mismatched bone-marrow grafts. Ultimately, this knowledge may lead to the development of methods to use the body’s own immune system to protect against infections and malignancy.