NK cell exhaustion is caused by chronic exposure to activating stimuli during viral infection, tumorigenesis, and prolonged cytokine treatment. Evidence suggests that exhaustion may play a role in disease progression. However, relative to T cell exhaustion, the mechanisms underlying NK cell exhaustion and methods of reversing it are poorly understood. Here, we describe a potentially novel in vitro model of exhaustion that uses plate-bound agonists of the NK cell activating receptors NKp46 and NKG2D to induce canonical exhaustion phenotypes. In this model, prolonged activation resulted in downregulation of activating receptors, upregulation of checkpoint markers, decreased cytokine production and cytotoxicity in vitro, weakened glycolytic capacity, and decreased persistence, function, and tumor control in vivo. Furthermore, we discovered a beneficial effect of NK cell inhibitory receptor signaling during exhaustion. By simultaneously engaging the inhibitory receptor NKG2A during activation in our model, cytokine production and cytotoxicity defects were mitigated, suggesting that balancing positive and negative signals integrated by effector NK cells can be beneficial for antitumor immunity. Together, these data uncover some of the mechanisms underlying NK cell exhaustion in humans and establish our in vitro model as a valuable tool for studying the processes regulating exhaustion.
Jacob A. Myers, Dawn Schirm, Laura Bendzick, Rachel Hopps, Carly Selleck, Peter Hinderlie, Martin Felices, Jeffrey S. Miller