NK cells are a phenotypically, morphologically and functionally heterogeneous population. This has led to the current thought that the non-MHC restricted cytotoxicity is a cellular function that can be associated to different phenotypes. The recognition of the target cell and the conjugate formation is always the first step that eventually leads to the lysis of target. Characterization of the phenotypical pattern of the cells able to bind to K562 targets is the purpose of this study. A multi-parametric flow cytometry binding assay has been employed to identify the different K562-bound lymphocyte subsets. In particular, cells that coexpress the CD16 and CD8 antigens (CD16+8dim+) showed a significantly higher binding capacity than their CD16+8- counterpart. Moreover, the highest binding values have been found in cells that did not express the CD16 antigen at all, but still expressed the CD8dim antigen, such as the small CD8dim+3+ population. These data show that, the NK lytic function being dependent on binding, minor subpopulations must be considered among effector cells, which might correspond to different lytic activities. None of the previously published methodologies that analyze conjugates by flow cytometry or fluorescence microscopy were able to measure the binding capacity of small, double stained, lymphocyte subsets.
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