Research ArticleImmunometabolism

TGF-β inhibits the activation and functions of NK cells by repressing the mTOR pathway

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Science Signaling  16 Feb 2016:
Vol. 9, Issue 415, pp. ra19
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.aad1884

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Relieving NK cell suppression

The immunosuppressive cytokine transforming growth factor–β (TGF-β) has beneficial effects when it resolves inflammation and prevents autoimmunity, but not when it inhibits antitumor immune responses. Viel et al. found that TGF-β signaling in mouse and human natural killer (NK) cells, cytotoxic cells that target tumor cells, inhibited the activation of the kinase mTOR, a central regulator of cellular metabolism and cytotoxic function. NK cells deficient in a TGF-β receptor subunit showed enhanced antitumor activity in mouse models of metastasis, suggesting that enhancing metabolism in NK cells may provide a therapeutic strategy to kill cancer cells.


Transforming growth factor–β (TGF-β) is a major immunosuppressive cytokine that maintains immune homeostasis and prevents autoimmunity through its antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory properties in various immune cell types. We provide genetic, pharmacologic, and biochemical evidence that a critical target of TGF-β signaling in mouse and human natural killer (NK) cells is the serine and threonine kinase mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin). Treatment of mouse or human NK cells with TGF-β in vitro blocked interleukin-15 (IL-15)–induced activation of mTOR. TGF-β and the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin both reduced the metabolic activity and proliferation of NK cells and reduced the abundances of various NK cell receptors and the cytotoxic activity of NK cells. In vivo, constitutive TGF-β signaling or depletion of mTOR arrested NK cell development, whereas deletion of the TGF-β receptor subunit TGF-βRII enhanced mTOR activity and the cytotoxic activity of the NK cells in response to IL-15. Suppression of TGF-β signaling in NK cells did not affect either NK cell development or homeostasis; however, it enhanced the ability of NK cells to limit metastases in two different tumor models in mice. Together, these results suggest that the kinase mTOR is a crucial signaling integrator of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines in NK cells. Moreover, we propose that boosting the metabolic activity of antitumor lymphocytes could be an effective strategy to promote immune-mediated tumor suppression.

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