NKT cells are a small subset of T lymphocytes which express an invariant V(alpha24JalphaQ TCR and recognize glycolipids presented by CD1d. In adults, NKT cells have a memory phenotype, frequently associated with oligoclonal expansion, express NK cell markers, and produce TO cytokines upon primary stimulation. Because of these features, NKT cells are regarded as lymphocytes of innate immunity. We investigated NKT cells from cord blood to see how these cells appear in the absence of exogenous stimuli. We found that NKT cells are present at comparable frequencies in cord blood and adult peripheral blood mononuclear cells and in both cases display a memory (CD45RO+CD62L-) phenotype. However, neonatal NKT cells differ from their adult counterparts by the following characteristics: (1) they express markers of activation, such as CD25; (2) they are polyclonal; (3) they do not produce cytokines in response to primary stimulation. Together, our data show that human NKT cells arise in the newborn with an activated memory phenotype, probably due to recognition of an endogenous ligand(s). The absence of oligoclonal expansion and primary effector functions also suggest that neonatal NKT cells, despite their activated memory phenotype, require a further priming/differentiation event to behave as fully functional cells of innate immunity.
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