Background & Aims: Natural killer (NK) cells are primary innate effector cells that play an important role in the control of human viral infections. During chronic viral infection, NK cells undergo significant changes in phenotype, function and subset distribution, including the appearance of CD56-CD16+ (CD56-) NK cells, previously identified in chronic human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus infection. However, the presence of CD56- NK cells in the pathogenesis of chronic hepatitis B (CHB) remains unknown.
Methods: Phenotype and function of CD56- NK cells from patients with CHB (n = 28) were assessed using flow cytometry and in vitro stimulation with HBV antigen.
Results: CHB patients had a higher frequency of CD56- NK cells compared to healthy controls in peripheral blood (6.2% vs 1.4%, P <.0001). Compared to CD56+ NK cells, CD56- NK cells had increased expression of inhibitory receptors, and reduced expression of activating receptors, as measured by MFI and qPCR. CD56- NK cells were less responsive to target cell and cytokine stimulation compared to their CD56+ counterparts. In addition, CD56- NK cells demonstrated defective dendritic cells (DCs) interactions resulting in reduced DCs maturation, lower expression of NK CD69 and impaired capacity of NK cells to eliminate immature DCs in co-culture studies. Finally, frequency of CD56- NK cells was positively correlated with serum HBV DNA levels.
Conclusion: Chronic HBV infection induces the expansion of highly dysfunctional of CD56- NK cells that likely contribute to inefficient innate and adaptive antiviral immune response in chronic HBV infection.