Reduced release and binding of perforin at the immunological synapse underlies the age-related decline in natural killer cell cytotoxicity

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Physiological aging is accompanied by a marked reduction in natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxicity (NKCC) at the single cell level, but the underlying mechanisms are unknown. To address this issue, we isolated NK cells from healthy young (≤ 35 years) and old (≤ 60 years) subjects and examined the effect of age on events fundamental to the process of NKCC. Simultaneous assessment of NKCC and NK cell-target cell conjugate formation revealed a marked age-associated decline in NK cell killing but comparable conjugate formation, indicating a post-target cell binding defect was responsible for impaired NKCC. Despite a reduction in the proportion of NK cells expressing the activatory receptor NKp46, NK cells from old donors were not hyporesponsive to stimulation, as no age-associated difference was observed in the expression of the early activation marker CD69 following target cell coculture. Furthermore, intracellular levels of the key cytotoxic effector molecules perforin and granzyme B, and the fusion of secretory lysosomes with the NK cell membrane were also similar between the two groups. However, when we examined the binding of the pore-forming protein perforin to the surface of its target cell, an event that correlated strongly with target cell lysis, we found the percentage of perforin positive target cells was lower following coculture with NK cells from old subjects. Underlying this reduction in binding was an age-associated impairment in perforin secretion, which was associated with defective polarization of lytic granules towards the immunological synapse. We propose that reduced perforin secretion underlies the reduction in NKCC that accompanies physiological aging.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)751-9
Number of pages9
JournalAging Cell
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2012