Background Adoptive immunotherapy relies on the use of T-cells to target tumour cells, through Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) Class I recognition.1 However, many tumours display alterations in the MHC-I pathway, a well-described immune evasion mechanism.2 Natural Killer (NK) cells recognize transformed cells independently from the presence of MHC-I and may be a reliable therapeutic option for patients with altered tumour MHC-I expression. The source of NK cells may be autologous or allogeneic and NK cells are also clinically relevant recipients of transgenic receptors (TCRs or antibodies) targeting tumour cells. NK cells have been categorized according to their CD56 and CD16 surface expression into different subpopulations: cytotoxic (CD56+CD16+) and regulatory (CD56brightCD16-).3 Expanding cytotoxic NK cells is challenging, since the frequency of NK cells is low in peripheral blood4 and there is also – at this point – not an optimal expansion protocol available.The goal of this project is to determine the best cytokine combination that facilitates expansion of cytotoxic NK cells that either target tumor cells directly or serve as recipients for transgenic receptors.
Methods Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells (PBMCs) were extracted using Ficoll methodology from blood donors and cultured in T25 flasks with Cell Genix Medium supplemented with 10% human serum and antibiotics. NK cells were expanded supplemented with feeder cells (ratio 1:1) and different cytokine combinations (1000 U/mL of IL-2, 10 U/ml of IL-12, 180 U/mL of IL-15 and/or 1 U/mL of IL-21) during 20 days. The immunophenotype of expanded NK cells was analyzed at days 0, 5, 10, 15 and 20 by flow cytometry. The cytotoxicity of NK cells was measured by a CD107a Assay or by a Total Cytotoxicity and Apoptosis Assay at days 10 and 20. Thirteen different cytokine combinations were tested.
Results 4/13 cytokine combinations produced a statistically significant increase of the absolute number of NK cells with a higher percentage of cytotoxic NK cells (figure 1). However, induction of cytotoxicity was not associated with a strong NK cell expansion. The regulatory NK cells subset (CD56brightCD16-) showed the highest percentage of CD107a-expressing cells, more than the CD56+CD16+, the most cytotoxic subpopulation of NK cells.
Conclusions This work shows that we are able to grow and efficiently expand NK cells from PBMCs with different cytokine combinations leading to clinically relevant NK cell numbers as well as cytotoxic functions. This enables to produce NK cell products for therapy and as recipients for transgenic tumor antigen-specific receptors.
Acknowledgements The authors would like to thank the Champalimaud Foundation Biobank, the Vivarium Facility and the Flow Cytometry Platform of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown.
Ethics Approval This study was approved by the Champalimaud Foundation Ethics Committee and by the Ethics Research Committee of NOVA Medical School of NOVA University of Lisbon.
Consent Written informed consent was obtained from the blood donors to use their samples for research purposes.
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