We investigated the diminished natural killer (NK) activity in human T lymphotropic virus type III (HTLV-III) seropositive hemophiliacs. Despite normal percentages of NK cells, lymphocytes from five hemophiliacs showed impaired NK activity against K-562 tumor cells in 4-h chromium release microcytotoxicity assays. For example, at an effector-to-target cell ratio of 10:1, cells from patients caused 21.7 +/- 2.5% lysis of tumor targets compared with 47.9 +/- 5.1% lysis by cells from controls (mean +/- SEM, P less than 0.005). Cells from patients were as cytotoxic in 18 h as were cells from controls in 4 h. Binding to tumor targets was not impaired since 11.0 +/- 1.5% of cells from patients and 11.1 +/- 1.3% of cells from controls bound to K-562 cells. Patients' binding cells, however, showed defective killing of attached tumor cells at all time points tested from 0 to 18 h. At 4 h, for example, patients' cells had lysed 10.9 +/- 2.1% of attached tumor cells compared with 26.3 +/- 3.3% lysis by controls' cells (P less than 0.005). The percentage of lymphocytes which were active NK cells (i.e., cells that bound and lysed a tumor cell) was always lower for patients than for controls (1.17 +/- 0.25% vs. 2.82 +/- 0.33%, P less than 0.005). Two methods for estimating recycling of effector cells against multiple target cells demonstrated that active NK cells from patients could recycle as well as those from controls (approximately 3-4 times in 4 h). Mixing experiments showed no evidence for cellular suppression of NK activity. The lytic function of NK cells from HTLV-III seropositive hemophiliacs is thus heterogeneous. This is characterized by a defect in post-binding lysis, with relative sparing of binding capability and recycling capacity.
M Katzman, M M Lederman