Functional rescue of NK-cells in solid tumors represents a central aim for new immunotherapeutic strategies. We have conducted a genomic, phenotypic and functional analysis of circulating NK-cells from patients with HCV-related liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. NK-cells were sorted from patients with HCC or liver cirrhosis and from healthy donors. Comparative mRNA gene expression profiling by whole-human-genome microarrays of sorted NK-cells was followed by phenotypic and functional characterization. To further identify possible mediators of NK-cell dysfunction, an in vitro model using media conditioned with patients’ and controls’ plasma was set up. Metabolic and cell motility defects were identified at the genomic level. Dysregulated gene expression profile has been translated into reduced cytokine production and degranulation despite a prevalent phenotype of terminally differentiated NK-cells. NKG2D-downregulation, high SMAD2 phosphorylation and other phenotypic and molecular alterations suggested TGF-β as possible mediator of this dysfunction. Blocking TGF-β could partially restore functional defects of NK-cells from healthy donors, exposed to TGF-β rich HCC patients’ plasma, suggesting that TGF-β among other molecules may represent a suitable target for immunotherapeutic intervention aimed at NK-cell functional restoration. By an unbiased approach, we have identified energy metabolism and cell motility defects of circulating NK-cells as main mechanisms responsible for functional NK-cell impairment in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma. This opens the way to test different approaches to restore NK-cell response in these patients.
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