Interleukin 2 (IL-2) receptors expressed on the surface of activated T cells and natural killer (NK) cells exhibit a variety of affinity states depending on their subunit composition. Low-affinity binding is associated with a 55-kDa alpha chain, intermediate-affinity binding with a 70-75-kD beta chain, and high-affinity binding with a bimolecular complex of the alpha and beta subunits. In a previous study of the IL-2 receptors expressed on NK cells obtained from cancer patients after in vivo IL-2 therapy, we documented a discrepancy between the level of beta chain and the level of intermediate-affinity IL-2 binding sites expressed on the cell surface. Based on this result, we postulated that formation of intermediate-affinity receptor sites required a component in addition to the beta chain, and that this component was present at limiting levels in the patient NK cells. In the present study we have examined the structure of the intermediate-affinity receptor complex using monoclonal antibodies that recognize the beta chain, but that do not interfere with its ability to bind IL-2. Evidence is presented establishing the physical association of a novel protein of 64 kD with the beta chain in intermediate-affinity IL-2 binding sites. This molecule, termed IL-2R gamma chain, coprecipitated with beta chains prepared from cells that had been incubated with IL-2, but was undetectable in immunoprecipitates prepared in the absence of IL-2. Examination of gamma chain expression in post-IL-2 therapy NK cells, where only low levels of intermediate-affinity IL-2 binding were detectable, revealed that the gamma chain was associated with, on average, only 10-12% of the beta chains expressed on such cells. This contrasted with approximately equal levels of beta and gamma chain expression on YT cells, a cell line that has both high levels of cell surface beta chain expression and high levels of IL-2 binding. Thus, the ratio of gamma chain to beta chain present in the immunoprecipitates roughly correlated with the proportion of beta chain involved in intermediate-affinity receptor sites. This result suggests that the 64-kD gamma chain is the component responsible for regulating the affinity of IL-2 association with the beta subunit. By further defining the structural components necessary for IL-2 receptor formation, these studies provide additional insight into mechanisms whereby lymphocytes might regulate their responsiveness to IL-2.

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