Telomere Science Library

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Telomere length in human natural killer cell subsets

Ouyang Q, Baerlocher G, Vulto I, Lansdorp PM. Terry Fox Laboratory, BC Cancer Research Centre, 675 West 10th Avenue, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V5Z 1L3. Ann N Y Acad Sci. ;1106:240-52.

Natural killer (NK) cells are cytotoxic cells that play a critical role in the innate immune response against infections and tumors. In the elderly, the cytotoxic function of NK cells is often compromised. Telomeres progressively shorten with each cell division and with age in most somatic cells eventually leading to chromosomal instability and cellular senescence. We studied the telomere length in NK cell subsets isolated from peripheral blood using "flow FISH," a method in which the hybridization of telomere probe in cells of interest is measured relative to internal controls in the same tube. We found that the average telomere length in human NK cells decreased with age as was previously found for human T lymphocytes. Separation of adult NK cells based on CD56 and CD16 expression revealed that the telomere length was significantly shorter in CD56(dim)CD16(+) (mature) NK cells compared to CD56(bright)CD16(-) (immature) NK cells from the same donor. Furthermore, sorting of NK cells based on expression of activation markers, such as NKG2D and LFA-1, revealed that NK cells expressing these markers have significantly shorter telomeres. Telomere fluorescence was very heterogeneous in NK cells expressing CD94, killer inhibitory receptor (KIR), NKG2A, or CD161. Our observations indicate that telomeric DNA in NK cells is lost with cell division and with age similar to what has been observed for most other hematopoietic cells. Telomere attrition in NK cells is a plausible cause for diminished NK cell function in the elderly.