Liver transplantation for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) results in a specific condition where the immune response is potentially directed against both allogeneic and cancer antigens. We have investigated the level of anti-cancer immunity during allogeneic immune response. Dark Agouti-to-Lewis and Lewis-to-Lewis rat liver transplantations were performed and the recipients anti-cancer immunity was analysed at the time of alloimmune activation. The occurrence of rejection in the allogeneic recipients was confirmed by a shorter survival (p<0.01), increased liver function tests (p<0.01), the presence of signs of rejection on histology, and a donor-specific ex vivo mixed lymphocyte reaction. At the time of alloimmune activation, blood mononuclear cells of the allogeneic group demonstrated increased anti-cancer cytotoxicity (p<0.005), which was related to an increased natural killer (NK) cell frequency (p<0.05) and a higher monocyte/macrophage activation level (p<0.01). Similarly, liver NK cell anti-cancer cytotoxicity (p<0.005), and liver monocyte/macrophage activation levels (p<0.01) were also increased. The alloimmune-associated cytotoxicity was mediated through the NKG2D receptor, whose expression was increased in the rejected graft (p<0.05) and on NK cells and monocyte/macrophages. NKG2D ligands were expressed on rat HCC cells, and its inhibition prevented the alloimmune-associated cytotoxicity. Although waiting for in vivo validation, alloimmune-associated cytotoxicity after rat liver transplantation appears to be linked to increased frequencies and levels of activation of NK cells and monocyte/macrophages, and is at least in part mediated through the NKG2D receptor
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