Acid treatment, where cells are exposed to 0.2 M citric acid buffer at pH 3 for 2 min, was described in a previous paper to be a method which specifically eliminates class I MHC antigens from the membrane of viable cells. We applied this method to characterize functional roles of class I MHC antigens on the target cells in NK cell cytotoxicity. When NK target cells, U937, Molt-4, and Raji, were subjected to acid treatment, the treated cells lost their surface class I MHC antigens and became more sensitive to NK cell killing. On the other hand, the susceptibility of K562 cells which initially lacked class I MHC antigens did not significantly change after such treatment. We then examined the mechanism which enables NK cells to become more cytotoxic against class I MHC antigen-eliminated target cells. Single cell binding assay and cold target inhibition assay demonstrated that class I MHC antigen-eliminated target cells did not acquire high binding affinity to NK cells. However, the interaction between NK cells and class I MHC antigen-eliminated targets resulted in a greater increase in production of NKCF-like factor than did the interaction between NK cells and untreated targets. Class I MHC antigen-eliminated targets did not acquire high killer susceptibility to NKCF-like factor. The present study utilizing the acid treatment method confirmed that surface class I MHC antigens on the targets are important immunoregulatory molecules not only for cytotoxic T lymphocytes but also for NK cells and elucidated some of the underlying mechanisms.
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