Authors: Bortolotti D, Gentili V, Rizzo S, Rotola A, Rizzo R

PMID: 32859121 PMCID: PMC7563485 DOI: 10.3390/cells9091975


Natural killer cells are important in the control of viral infections. However, the role of NK cells during severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection has previously not been identified. Peripheral blood NK cells from SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 naïve subjects were evaluated for their activation, degranulation, and interferon-gamma expression in the presence of SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins. K562 and lung epithelial cells were transfected with spike proteins and co-cultured with NK cells. The analysis was performed by flow cytometry and immune fluorescence. SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins did not alter NK cell activation in a K562 in vitro model. On the contrary, SARS-CoV-2 spike 1 protein (SP1) intracellular expression by lung epithelial cells resulted in NK cell-reduced degranulation. Further experiments revealed a concomitant induction of HLA-E expression on the surface of lung epithelial cells and the recognition of an SP1-derived HLA-E-binding peptide. Simultaneously, there was increased modulation of the inhibitory receptor NKG2A/CD94 on NK cells when SP1 was expressed in lung epithelial cells. We ruled out the GATA3 transcription factor as being responsible for HLA-E increased levels and HLA-E/NKG2A interaction as implicated in NK cell exhaustion. We show for the first time that NK cells are affected by SP1 expression in lung epithelial cells via HLA-E/NKG2A interaction. The resulting NK cells’ exhaustion might contribute to immunopathogenesis in SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Keywords: HLA-E; NK cell; NKG2A; SARS-CoV-2