Three independent variants with a profound reduction of cell surface H-2 have been selected from the C57BL/6 mouse-derived RBL-5 and EL-4 T lymphomas. After subcutaneous inoculation of low cell doses in syngeneic mice, the H-2- variants failed to grow out, whereas the H-2+ control lines showed progressive growth. No difference in growth rate or cloning efficiency was detectable in tissue culture. The in vivo difference in tumor outgrowth was analyzed in detail for one of the H-2-low lines. The outgrowth difference remained after the H-2-low variant and the control line had been injected subcutaneously in opposite flanks of the same mouse, and it was not dependent upon activity of mature T cells, since the same result was seen in athymic nude mice. The difference was partially sensitive to irradiation of the hosts. When mice were pretreated with anti-asialo GM1 antiserum, known to depress natural killer (NK) cell activity, the difference in outgrowth was abolished, and both the control line and the H-2- variant showed progressive growth in vivo. Experiments comparing the distribution and survival of isotope-prelabeled variant and wild type cells indicated that a rapid elimination of the former took place within 24 h after intravenous injection. These differences in tumor elimination were not seen in mice treated with anti-asialo GM1 antiserum. We conclude that the reduced tumorigenicity of sublines with impaired H-2 expression is largely, if not exclusively due to rapid elimination by NK cells. These findings may reflect an inverse, indirect relation between factors controlling H-2 expression and NK sensitivity. Another possible explanation is that major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-encoded gene products are directly involved in a regulatory signal in the NK cell system. According to this interpretation, immunological selectivity in the NK cell system would be achieved by the failure to recognize self-MHC, irrespective of the presence of foreign antigens, i.e. by detection of no-self rather than of nonself. This may also explain previous observations on H-2-linked hybrid resistance against lymphoid grafts and changes in H-2 phenotypes associated with tumor progression.

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