We demonstrated earlier that individuals homozygous for conserved major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-extended haplotypes have low natural killer (NK) activity as measured by cytolysis of the K562 tumor cell lines. In the present study, we investigated the segregation and MHC linkage of NK activity in families in which MHC haplotypes of human histocompatibility leukocyte antigens (HLA)-A, -C, and -B, complotype, and DR specificities are known. In two informative families, low activity was inherited as a recessive trait linked to the MHC. By using individuals homozygous for specific fragments of extended haplotypes or for HLA-B alleles, we found that the HLA-C and -B and not the complotype or HLA-DR region contains genes controlling NK activity. The majority of the unrelated individuals with low NK activity were homozygous or doubly heterozygous for HLA-B7 (Cw7), B8 (Cw7), B44 (Cw5), B18, or B57 (Cw6). Thus, these alleles form one complementation group designated NKB1. Another less frequent group, NKB2, was also identified, and consisted of individuals homozygous for B35 (Cw4). NK activity was correlated with the number of circulating NK (CD16+ CD56+) cells. Individuals homozygous for the NKB complementation groups have fewer circulating NK cells than individuals heterozygous for these alleles and alleles of other complementation groups, possibly explaining the low activity of cells in these subjects. These findings suggest that during the maturation of NK cells there is NK cellular deletion in donors homozygous for NKB genes resulting in low NK cell numbers and activity.

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