BACKGROUND: For long, natural killer (NK) cells have been suspected to play a critical role in suppressing the development of spontaneous metastases in cancer patients. Despite a wide range of studies it remains unclear so far to what extent primary tumor growth together with formation of distant metastases and NK cell activity influence each other.
METHODS: To precisely investigate the role of NK cells with a perforin-deficiency in cancer growth and metastasis formation, human HT29 colon cancer cells were subcutaneously grafted into pore forming protein and recombination activating gene 2 double knock out (pfp/rag2) mice and in recombination activating gene 2 only knock out (rag2) mice both with black six background. Both mice lack B and T cell functions due to the absence of rag2.
RESULTS: Primary tumors developed in 16/16 in pfp/rag2 and 20/20 rag2 mice. At sacrifice primary tumor weight did not differ significantly. However, tumors grew faster in pfp/rag2 mice (50 days) than in pfp/rag2 mice (70 days). Circulating tumor cells (CTC) in murine blood were nearly three times higher in pfp/rag2 (68 cells/ml) than in rag2 mice (24 cells/ml). Lung metastases occurred frequently in pfp/rag2 mice (13/16) and infrequently in rag2 mice (5/20). The mean number of metastases was 789 in pfp/rag2 mice compared to 210 in rag2 mice. Lung metastases in pfp/rag2 mice consisted of 10-100 tumor cells while those in rag2 mice were generally disseminated tumor cells (DTCs).Computer modelling showed that perforin-dependent killing of NK cells decelerates the growth of the primary tumour and kills 80% of CTCs. Furthermore, perforin-mediated cytotoxicity hampers the proliferation of the malignant cells in host tissue forcing them to stay dormant for at least 30 days.
CONCLUSION: The results exactly quantified the effect of perforin-dependent direct cytotoxicity of NK cells on HT29 on primary tumor growth, number of CTCs in the blood and the number of metastases. The largest effects were seen in the number of mice developing spontaneous lung metastases and the mean number of lung metastases. Hence, perforin-mediated cytotoxicity used for direct killing by NK cells is more important than indirect killing by secretion of death-inducing ligands by NK cells.