Natural killer (NK) cells play a pivotal role in cancer immune surveillance, and activating the receptor/ligand interaction may contribute to control the development and evolution of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). We investigated the role of the natural killer group 2 member D (NKG2D) activating receptor and its ligand, the major histocompatibility complex class I chain-related protein A and B (MICA/B) in patients with cirrhosis and HCC subjected to surgical resection, patients with cirrhosis and no HCC, and healthy donors (HD). The NKG2D-mediated function was determined in peripheral blood (PB), in tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (NK-TIL), and in matched surrounding liver tissue (NK-LIL). A group of patients treated with sorafenib because of clinically advanced HCC was also studied. A humanized anti-MICA/B monoclonal antibody (mAb) was used in in vitro experiments to examine NK cell-mediated antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity. Serum concentrations of soluble MICA/B were evaluated by ELISA. IL-15 stimulation increased NKG2D-dependent activity which, however, remained dysfunctional in PB NK cells from HCC patients, in line with the reduced NKG2D expression on NK cells. NK-TIL showed a lower degranulation ability than NK-LIL, which was restored by IL-15 stimulation. Moreover, in vitro IL-15 stimulation enhanced degranulation and interferon-γ production by PB NK from patients at month one of treatment with sorafenib. Anti-MICA/B mAb associated with IL-15 was able to induce PB NK cytotoxicity for primary HCC cells in HD and patients with HCC, who also showed NK-TIL degranulation for autologous primary HCC cells. Our findings highlight the key role of the NKG2D-MICA/B axis in the regulation of NK cell responses in HCC and provide evidence in support of a potentially important role of anti-MICA/B mAb and IL-15 stimulation in HCC immunotherapy.
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