Little is known about target organ-infiltrating NK cells in type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. In this study, we identified NK cells with a unique phenotype in the pancreas of NOD mice. Pancreatic NK cells, localized to the endocrine and exocrine parts, were present before T cells during disease development and did not require T cells for their infiltration. Furthermore, NK cells, or NK cell precursors, from the spleen could traffic to the pancreas, where they displayed the pancreatic phenotype. Pancreatic NK cells from other mouse strains shared phenotypic characteristics with pancreatic NK cells from NOD mice, but displayed less surface killer cell lectin-like receptor G1, a marker for mature NK cells that have undergone proliferation, and also did not proliferate to the same extent. A subset of NOD mouse pancreatic NK cells produced IFN-gamma spontaneously, suggesting ongoing effector responses. However, most NOD mouse pancreatic NK cells were hyporesponsive compared with spleen NK cells, as reflected by diminished cytokine secretion and a lower capacity to degranulate. Interestingly, such hyporesponsiveness was not seen in pancreatic NK cells from the nonautoimmune strain C57BL/6, suggesting that this feature is not a general property of pancreatic NK cells. Based on our data, we propose that NK cells are sentinel cells in a normal pancreas. We further speculate that during inflammation, pancreatic NK cells initially mediate proinflammatory effector functions, potentially contributing to organ-specific autoimmunity, but later become hyporesponsive because of exhaustion or regulation.
American Association of Immunologists , 2010. Vol. 184, no 5, 2272-2280 p.