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Interleukin 15 (IL-15) is a novel cytokine that has recently been cloned and expressed. Whereas it has no sequence homology with IL-2, IL- 15 interacts with components of the IL-2 receptor (IL-2R). In the present study we performed a functional analysis of recombinant IL-15 on phenotypically and functionally distinct populations of highly purified human natural killer (NK) cells. The CD56bright subset of human NK cells constitutively expresses the high affinity IL-2R and exhibits a brisk proliferative response after the binding of picomolar amounts of IL-2. Using a proliferation assay, IL-15 demonstrated a very steep dose-response curve that was distinct from the dose-response curve for IL-2. The proliferative effects of IL-15 could be abrogated by anti-IL-2R beta (p75), but not by anti-IL-2R alpha (p55). The proliferative effects of IL-2 on CD56bright NK cells could be inhibited by both antibodies. CD56dim NK cells express the intermediate affinity IL-2R in the absence of the high affinity IL-2R. Activation of CD56dim NK cells by IL-15 was similar to that of IL-2 as measured by enhanced NK cytotoxic activity, antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity, and NK cell production of interferon gamma, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor. The IL-15-enhanced NK cytotoxic activity could be completely blocked by anti-IL-2R beta monoclonal antibody. The binding of radiolabeled IL-2 and IL-15 to CD56dim NK cells was inhibited in the presence of anti-IL-2R beta. Scatchard analysis of radiolabeled IL-15 and IL-2 binding to NK- enriched human lymphocytes revealed the presence of high and intermediate affinity receptors for both ligands. IL-15 is a ligand that activates human NK cells through components of the IL-2R in a pattern that is similar but not identical to that of IL-2. Unlike IL-2, IL-15 is produced by activated monocytes/macrophages. The discovery of IL-15 may increase our understanding of how monocytes/macrophages participate in the regulation of NK cell function.