Natural killer (NK) cells that express the NKB1 receptor are inhibited from killing target cells that possess human histocompatibility leukocyte antigen (HLA) B molecules bearing the Bw4 serological epitope. To investigate whether NKB1 expression is affected by HLA type, peripheral blood lymphocytes of 203 HLA-typed donors were examined. Most donors had a single population of NKB1+ cells, but some had two populations expressing different cell surface levels of NKB1, and others had no detectable NKB1+ cells. Among the donors expressing NKB1, both the relative abundance of NKB1+ NK cells and their level of cell surface expression varied substantially. The percentage of NKB1+ NK cells ranged from 0 to >75% (mean 14.7%), and the mean fluorescence of the positive population varied over three orders of magnitude. For each donor, the small percentage of T cells expressing NKB1 (usually <2%), had a pattern of expression mirroring that of the NK cells. NKB1 expression by NK and T cells remained stable over the 2-yr period that five donors were tested. Patterns of NKB1 expression were not associated with Bw4 or Bw6 serotype of the donor or with the presence of any individual HLA-A or -B antigens. Cells expressing NKB1 are often found in donors who do not possess an appropriate class I ligand, and can be absent in those who express Bw4+ HLA-B antigens. Family studies further suggested that the phenotype of NKB1 expression is inherited but not HLA linked. Whereas identical twins show matching patterns of NKB1 expression, HLA-identical siblings can differ in NKB1 expression, and conversely, HLA-disparate siblings can be similar. Thus NKB1 expression phenotypes are tightly regulated and extremely heterogeneous, but not correlated with HLA type.

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