In this study, we have used radiolabeled IL-2 binding assays, Northern blot analysis, immunofluorescent flow cytometry and cell sorting, as well as proliferation and cytotoxicity assays to perform an extensive phenotypic and functional characterization of the IL-2 receptor in normal resting human peripheral blood lymphocytes. Our results indicate that almost all T cells (greater than 98%) express neither the high affinity IL-2 receptor nor the functional intermediate affinity p75 chain of the IL-2 receptor without prior activation. In contrast, most NK cells constitutively express the isolated intermediate affinity p75 IL-2 receptor. In addition, a subpopulation of NK cells, distinguished by high density expression of the NKH1 antigen, constitutively express the high affinity IL-2 receptor, in addition to an excess of the isolated intermediate affinity p75 IL-2 receptor. These NKH1bright+ cells exhibit a brisk proliferative response to IL-2, similar to that seen with antigen-activated T cells, yet do so in the absence of any known antigenic stimuli. No other resting peripheral blood lymphocyte population, including CD4+, CD8+, and CD20 cells, exhibits this property. The intermediate affinity p75 IL-2 receptor, as it exists in its isolated form on resting NK cells, does not transduce a growth signal equivalent to that seen in NK cells expressing the high affinity IL-2 receptor, despite doses of IL-2 that are known to fully saturate the isolated p75 chain. This strongly suggests that additional structural or functional components are involved in generating the proliferative response following the binding of IL-2 to the high affinity heterodimeric form of the IL-2 receptor. The constitutive expression of this functional high affinity IL-2 receptor on a small population of resting NK cells provides further evidence in support of a role for these cells in the host's early defense against viral infection or malignant transformation, before the more delayed but specific T cell response.

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