Return To The Previous Page
Buy a Package
Number Of Visible Items Remaining : 3 Item

NK cell deficiency syndromes: Treatment

NK cell deficiency syndromes: Treatment
Jordan S Orange, MD, PhD
Section Editor:
Rebecca Marsh, MD
Deputy Editor:
Anna M Feldweg, MD
Literature review current through: Feb 2023. | This topic last updated: Aug 17, 2021.

INTRODUCTION — Natural killer (NK) cell deficiency syndromes are rare disorders in which NK cells are absent, deficient, or dysfunctional, in the absence of any other identifiable immunodeficiency, genetic disorder, or medication known to affect NK cells. These disorders are categorized as classical NK cell deficiency (CNKD) and functional NK cell deficiency (FNKD).

In CNKD, NK cell developmental status or survival is abnormal, often leading to decreased NK cell numbers in the peripheral blood.

In FNKD, NK cells are appropriately developed and present but are functionally impaired.

The management of patients with these disorders is discussed here. The biology of NK cells, the clinical manifestations of NK cell disorders, and the evaluation of patients suspected of having NK cell defects are presented separately. (See "NK cell deficiency syndromes: Clinical manifestations and diagnosis".)

OVERVIEW — Therapy for patients with NK cell deficiency syndromes is largely empiric, due to the small numbers of cases described in the literature [1]. Active infections must be identified and treated aggressively, as with any immunodeficiency. (See "Inborn errors of immunity (primary immunodeficiencies): Overview of management".)

The use of specific therapies is based either on theoretical utility or anecdotal reports of benefit (table 1).

ANTIVIRAL PROPHYLAXIS — NK cell disorders are characterized clinically by susceptibility to severe and/or recurrent infection with herpes viruses, including varicella-zoster virus (VZV), herpes simplex virus (HSV) I and II, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and cytomegalovirus (CMV). There is also a marked susceptibility in some patients to human papillomaviruses (HPV).

In patients who are suspected or known to have classical NK cell deficiency type 1 (CNKD1) with GATA2 deficiency, prophylaxis for Mycobacterium avium-intracellulare should be considered, as the risk for this infection is increased in some patients with this genetic defect. (See "NK cell deficiency syndromes: Clinical manifestations and diagnosis", section on 'Evaluation and diagnosis' and "Mendelian susceptibility to mycobacterial diseases: Specific defects", section on 'GATA2 deficiency (MonoMAC syndrome)'.)

Prophylactic antiviral regimens should be tailored to the infectious history of the individual patient. Serologic tests should be performed to determine if an NK cell-deficient individual has experienced infections with known herpesviruses. Nucleic acid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests of peripheral blood should also be performed to ensure that a patient does not have active and inadequately controlled infection. In our clinic, we assess for past exposure to the following viruses:


HSV I and II



Human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6)

Evidence of past exposure without detectable viral nucleic acid in peripheral blood or active/recurrent viral disease indicates that the patient is able to contain that particular pathogen to some extent and thus does not require prophylaxis against that pathogen.

If a patient with NK cell deficiency is naïve to HSV or CMV, however, then we suggest administering permanent prophylaxis with an appropriate antiviral agent (eg, acyclovir or valacyclovir for HSV, valganciclovir for CMV). There are no studies assessing the risk/benefit ratio of such an approach, but in the absence of this information, the author would suggest indefinite prophylaxis.

In those for whom they are prescribed, the prophylactic regimens are continued indefinitely. Doses are reviewed elsewhere. (See "Inborn errors of immunity (primary immunodeficiencies): Overview of management", section on 'Prophylactic antimicrobial therapy'.)

Breakthrough infectious episodes should be treated with higher dose treatment regimens or with the intravenous form of the drug, where appropriate. For patients who may have or have had central nervous system viral disease, a more specific treatment and subsequently conservative prophylactic approach is warranted. This suggestion is based upon anecdotal clinical experiences described in case reports. (See "Viral encephalitis in adults".)

IMMUNIZATIONS — The administration of recombinant human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to both female and male patients is suggested, due to the potential risk of severe disease in those with NK cell defects. (See "Human papillomavirus vaccination".)

In contrast, we would not recommend the live-attenuated virus varicella vaccine, since it could place the patient at risk for disseminated infection. Instead, the subunit vaccine for shingles could be given. Although not routinely recommended for immunocompetent children, this vaccine is a non-live recombinant glycoprotein E vaccine (designed recombinant zoster vaccine; sold as Shingrix [brand name]) and is a more logical choice for children with NK cell deficiency. (See "Vaccination for the prevention of chickenpox (primary varicella infection)", section on 'Choice of vaccine'.)

IMMUNOGLOBULIN REPLACEMENT — For patients with classical NK cell deficiency (CNKD) or functional NK cell deficiency (FNKD) who have experienced a life-threatening infection with one of the viruses that pose a threat to these patients and are naïve to others, it is reasonable to consider regular immune globulin replacement therapy [2]. Theoretically, the antiviral antibodies contained in gammaglobulin would provide some protection against these viruses, including herpesviruses for which there are no specific prophylactic antiviral therapies. (See "Immune globulin therapy in primary immunodeficiency".)

POSSIBLE ADJUNCTIVE THERAPIES — There are relatively few therapies that are known to increase NK cell activities, but interleukin 2 (IL-2) and interferon alfa-2b are of potential value in both functional NK cell deficiency (FNKD) and classical NK cell deficiency (CNKD):

In patients with FNKD, these therapies might increase NK cell function.

In CNKD, certain biologic therapies can promote some additional development or survival of NK cells.

Interleukin-2 — One biologic agent that is capable of increasing NK cell activities is IL-2 [3]. IL-2 has been used in individuals with malignancy and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and has been shown to increase NK cell activity. It has also been reported to have clinical benefit in diseases having impaired NK cell function [4-6].

Based upon these observations, the in vitro responsiveness of NK cells to IL-2 in a patient with FNKD can be evaluated. If there is a convincing in vitro response, as determined by a greater than twofold increase in NK cell cytolytic activity, then low-dose IL-2 therapy may be considered as an experimental adjunctive treatment. We suggest that this be administered only by clinicians with experience in the use of this agent.

As demonstrated in other diseases, there are a variety of successful IL-2 treatment regimens that increase NK cell function [4,7,8]:

In the author's unpublished, anecdotal experience, IL-2 (at a dose of 0.5 to 1 million units/m2 given subcutaneously daily for five consecutive days) can induce an increase in NK cell cytotoxic activity in those patients who have been shown to respond in vitro [9]. If the patient appears to improve, the treatment can be repeated every seven to eight weeks.

Alternatively, a dose of 0.5 to 1 million units/m2 can be given subcutaneously three times per week as continuous therapy. This can help induce and sustain NK cell function in some patients. Aside from injection site reactions, either regimen is relatively well-tolerated.

Interferon alfa — Interferon alfa-2b enhances the cytotoxic activity of NK cells, and systemic treatment of a patient with refractory periungual warts and NK cell dysfunction resulted in dramatic improvement [10,11]. There is also preliminary experience with use of interferon alfa in patients with classical NK cell deficiency type 1 (CNKD1 due to GATA2 deficiency), with clinical improvement of warts as well as increased NK cell numbers and functional activity [12]. This agent warrants further study, since its use is only anecdotal. However, side effects include potentially severe cytopenias, flu-like syndrome, and depression. Aside from use in patients with NK cell dysfunction and intractable warts, use of interferon alfa-2b is not recommended outside of investigational protocols.

Interferon alfa-2b is likely to become gradually less available in the United States and globally, and at some point is likely to be unavailable for clinical use. Other type-I interferons (alpha and beta) should have similar activity upon NK cells, although direct evidence for use in NK cell deficiency is not available. However, there is substantive evidence in other disease states that interferon alfa-2a and possibly interferon beta can enhance NK cell function, although the latter is most clearly associated with increasing CD56bright NK cells [13-17].

HEMATOPOIETIC CELL TRANSPLANTATION — For patients with particularly severe past infections and acceptably matched donors, hematopoietic cell transplantation may be considered in an attempt to correct the presumed hematopoietic defect. The severity of the patient's illness must be balanced against the risks of transplant.

Successful hematopoietic stem cell transplantation from a matched, unrelated donor was reported in a seven-year-old girl who had suffered severe disseminated varicella infection at age four, which was complicated by encephalitis, vasculitis, and macrophage activation syndrome with multiple-organ involvement [18]. Laboratory evaluation prior to transplantation revealed an absence of both NK cells and B cells. The child was free of infections and had a normal lymphocyte profile four years after transplantation.

Experience with transplantation has been accumulating in GATA2 deficiency, although some patients demonstrate immunologic changes outside of NK cells [19,20].

Other case reports have described patients who survived initial transplantation but reportedly succumbed to complications. (See "Hematopoietic cell transplantation for non-SCID inborn errors of immunity".)

ANTIVIRAL CELL THERAPY — While only available experimentally, antiviral cell therapy, in which cytotoxic T cells are generated in vitro from the individual patient or a human-leukocyte antigen (HLA)-compatible donor, presents a potential therapeutic option for classical NK cell deficiency (CNKD) or functional NK cell deficiency (FNKD) patients who have significant morbidity from an otherwise difficult-to-control infection. This is a consideration in centers where this option is available as a bridge to hematopoietic cell transplantation. In this context, antiviral cell therapy can be used to reduce viral loads prior to transplant, to rescue a patient from increased viral replication after transplant, or potentially as a viral load-reducing therapy on its own. A single patient with CNKD was reported in a series of primary immunodeficiency patients treated with antiviral cell therapy [21,22]. This patient had substantive Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) viremia after transplant and received antiviral cell therapy developed from the cells of the hematopoietic cell transplantation donor. EBV loads were reduced, and the patient survived.

SOCIETY GUIDELINE LINKS — Links to society and government-sponsored guidelines from selected countries and regions around the world are provided separately. (See "Society guideline links: Inborn errors of immunity (previously called primary immunodeficiencies)".)

SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS — The use of specific therapies is based either on theoretical utility or anecdotal reports of benefit (table 1).

In patients with classical natural killer (NK) cell deficiency (CNKD) who have no evidence of exposure or immunity to herpes simplex virus (HSV) or cytomegalovirus (CMV), we suggest lifelong prophylaxis with antiviral agents for protection against these infections (Grade 2C). (See 'Antiviral prophylaxis' above.)

In patients with CNKD or functional NK cell deficiency (FNKD), we suggest administration of recombinant human papillomaviruses (HPV) vaccine (Grade 2C). The non-live recombinant glycoprotein E vaccine for prevention of varicella zoster can also be given, if available. (See 'Immunizations' above.)

In patients with CNKD or FNKD who have experienced a life-threatening infection with one herpesvirus and are naïve to other herpesviruses, we suggest immunoglobulin replacement therapy, because the antiviral antibodies it contains should provide some protection against viral infections (Grade 2C). (See 'Immunoglobulin replacement' above.)

In the patient with FNKD in whom there is a convincing in vitro response to interleukin-2 (IL-2) (ie, a greater than twofold increase in NK cell cytolytic activity), low-dose IL-2 therapy is an experimental therapy that may augment NK cell function. The optimal dose is not known, although the author has successfully administered 0.5 to 1 million units of IL-2/m2, subcutaneously, using two different schedules. (See 'Interleukin-2' above.)

For patients with severe and refractory warts, we suggest the administration of interferon alfa-2b (Grade 2C). The use of this agent for other conditions associated with NK cell deficiencies should be limited to investigational protocols. (See 'Possible adjunctive therapies' above.)

For patients with particularly severe histories and acceptably matched donors, hematopoietic cell transplantation may correct the presumed hematopoietic defect. (See 'Hematopoietic cell transplantation' above.)

ACKNOWLEDGMENT — The UpToDate editorial staff acknowledges E Richard Stiehm, MD, who contributed as a Section Editor to an earlier version of this topic review.

  1. Orange JS. How I Manage Natural Killer Cell Deficiency. J Clin Immunol 2020; 40:13.
  2. Biron CA, Nguyen KB, Pien GC, et al. Natural killer cells in antiviral defense: function and regulation by innate cytokines. Annu Rev Immunol 1999; 17:189.
  3. Lotzová E, Savary CA, Schachner JR, et al. Generation of cytotoxic NK cells in peripheral blood and bone marrow of patients with acute myelogenous leukemia after continuous infusion with recombinant interleukin-2. Am J Hematol 1991; 37:88.
  4. Azuma H, Oshima M, Ito K, et al. Impaired interleukin-2 production in T-cells from a patient with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome: basis of clinical effect of interleukin-2 replacement therapy. Eur J Pediatr 2000; 159:633.
  5. Orange JS, Brodeur SR, Jain A, et al. Deficient natural killer cell cytotoxicity in patients with IKK-gamma/NEMO mutations. J Clin Invest 2002; 109:1501.
  6. Orange JS, Roy-Ghanta S, Mace EM, et al. IL-2 induces a WAVE2-dependent pathway for actin reorganization that enables WASp-independent human NK cell function. J Clin Invest 2011; 121:1535.
  7. Meropol NJ, Porter M, Blumenson LE, et al. Daily subcutaneous injection of low-dose interleukin 2 expands natural killer cells in vivo without significant toxicity. Clin Cancer Res 1996; 2:669.
  8. Toren A, Nagler A, Rozenfeld-Granot G, et al. Amplification of immunological functions by subcutaneous injection of intermediate-high dose interleukin-2 for 2 years after autologous stem cell transplantation in children with stage IV neuroblastoma. Transplantation 2000; 70:1100.
  9. Jyonouchi S, Gwafila B, Gwalani LA, et al. Phase I trial of low-dose interleukin 2 therapy in patients with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome. Clin Immunol 2017; 179:47.
  10. Mossman KL, Ashkar AA. Herpesviruses and the innate immune response. Viral Immunol 2005; 18:267.
  11. Cac NN, Ballas ZK. Recalcitrant warts, associated with natural killer cell dysfunction, treated with systemic IFN-alpha. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2006; 118:526.
  12. Mace EM, Hsu AP, Monaco-Shawver L, et al. Mutations in GATA2 cause human NK cell deficiency with specific loss of the CD56(bright) subset. Blood 2013; 121:2669.
  13. Bruder Costa J, Dufeu-Duchesne T, Leroy V, et al. Pegylated Interferon α-2a Triggers NK-Cell Functionality and Specific T-Cell Responses in Patients with Chronic HBV Infection without HBsAg Seroconversion. PLoS One 2016; 11:e0158297.
  14. See DM, Tilles JG. alpha-Interferon treatment of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Immunol Invest 1996; 25:153.
  15. Markova AA, Mihm U, Schlaphoff V, et al. PEG-IFN alpha but not ribavirin alters NK cell phenotype and function in patients with chronic hepatitis C. PLoS One 2014; 9:e94512.
  16. Garzetti GG, Ciavattini A, Romanini C, et al. Interferon alpha 2b treatment of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 2: modulation of natural killer cell. Gynecol Obstet Invest 1994; 37:204.
  17. Vandenbark AA, Huan J, Agotsch M, et al. Interferon-beta-1a treatment increases CD56bright natural killer cells and CD4+CD25+ Foxp3 expression in subjects with multiple sclerosis. J Neuroimmunol 2009; 215:125.
  18. Notarangelo LD, Mazzolari E. Natural killer cell deficiencies and severe varicella infection. J Pediatr 2006; 148:563.
  19. Simonis A, Fux M, Nair G, et al. Allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation in patients with GATA2 deficiency-a case report and comprehensive review of the literature. Ann Hematol 2018; 97:1961.
  20. Parta M, Shah NN, Baird K, et al. Allogeneic Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation for GATA2 Deficiency Using a Busulfan-Based Regimen. Biol Blood Marrow Transplant 2018; 24:1250.
  21. Tzannou I, Papadopoulou A, Naik S, et al. Off-the-Shelf Virus-Specific T Cells to Treat BK Virus, Human Herpesvirus 6, Cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr Virus, and Adenovirus Infections After Allogeneic Hematopoietic Stem-Cell Transplantation. J Clin Oncol 2017; 35:3547.
  22. Naik S, Nicholas SK, Martinez CA, et al. Adoptive immunotherapy for primary immunodeficiency disorders with virus-specific T lymphocytes. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2016; 137:1498.
Topic 3922 Version 14.0


Do you want to add Medilib to your home screen?