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Differential activation of killer cells in the circulation and the lung: a study of current smoking status and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Public Library of Science
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  • Medicine


Background:CD8+ T-lymphocytes, natural killer T-like cells (NKT-like cells, CD56+CD3+) and natural killer cells (NK cells, CD56+CD3−) are the three main classes of human killer cells and they are implicated in the pathogenesis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Activation of these cells can initiate immune responses by virtue of their production of inflammatory cytokines and chemokines that cause lung tissue damage, mucus hypersecretion and emphysema. The objective of the current study was to investigate the activation levels of human killer cells in healthy non-smokers, healthy smokers, ex-smokers with COPD and current smokers with COPD, in both peripheral blood and induced sputum. Methods/Principal Findings:After informed consent, 124 participants were recruited into the study and peripheral blood or induced sputum was taken. The activation states and receptor expression of killer cells were measured by flow cytometry. In peripheral blood, current smokers, regardless of disease state, have the highest proportion of activated CD8+ T-lymphocytes, NKT-like cells and NK cells compared with ex-smokers with COPD and healthy non-smokers. Furthermore, CD8+ T-lymphocyte and NK cell activation is positively correlated with the number of cigarettes currently smoked. Conversely, in induced sputum, the proportion of activated killer cells was related to disease state rather than current smoking status, with current and ex-smokers with COPD having significantly higher rates of activation than healthy smokers and healthy non-smokers. Conclusions: A differential effect in systemic and lung activation of killer cells in COPD is evident. Systemic activation appears to be related to current smoking whereas lung activation is related to the presence or absence of COPD, irrespective of current smoking status. These findings suggest that modulating killer cell activation may be a new target for the treatment of COPD.

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