Incubation of human peripheral blood lymphocytes with bone marrow cells resulted in significant inhibition of colony formation by committed myeloid and erythroid cells. Using positively selected homogeneous natural killer (NK) cell preparations and lymphocyte subpopulations depleted of or enriched for NK cells, we definitively characterize as NK cells the cells in normal peripheral blood that are responsible for inhibition of bone marrow colony growth. The inhibitory effect of NK cells on hematopoiesis can be mediated by a soluble factor that is produced only by NK cells upon culture with HLA-DR+ hematopoietic cells and with NK-sensitive cell lines. Both NK cells and the NK-produced, colony-inhibiting activity (NK-CIA) are suppressive for allogeneic and autologous bone marrow CFU-GEMM (colony-forming units, granulocyte, erythroid, monocyte, megakaryocyte), CFU-E (CFU, erythroid), and early CFU-GM (CFU, granulocyte, monocyte), but not for either BFU-E (burst-forming units, erythroid) or late CFU-GM. [3H]Thymidine incorporation was inhibited by NK-CIA-containing supernatants in HLA-DR+ but not HLA-DR- bone marrow cell populations stimulated to proliferative by colony-stimulating factor (CSF). These data suggest that the NK cell-mediated inhibitory effect on proliferation and differentiation of hematopoietic precursor cells is mediated in part or completely by the secreted NK-CIA. The concentration of NK-CIA reached in the supernatant of the mixture of NK cell-containing lymphocyte populations with bone marrow cells is sufficient to account for the inhibitory effect mediated by NK cells. Our data support the hypothesis that human NK cells play a major role in the control of hematopoiesis, down-regulating it under conditions in which the NK cells are functionally activated.

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