Microscopy-based single-cell in vitro assays for NK cell function in 2-D and 3-D

University dissertation from Stockholm : KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Abstract: Natural killer (NK) cells are effector cells of the innate immune system that are responsible for mediating cellular cytotoxicity against virally infected or neoplastically transformed cells. NK cell subsets are defined by their expression of certain cell-surface markers, and are usually related to activation and developmental status.However, how distinct NK cell phenotypes correlate with behavior in NK-target interactions is less widely characterized. There is therefore a need to study NK cell behavior down at the single-cell level. One aim of this thesis is to approach methods that quantitatively describe these single-cell-level behavioral differences of NK cells.Additionally, the ability of NK cells to migrate through the extracellular matrix (ECM) microenvironment is crucial for NK cell trafficking and immune surveillance. Traditional imaging studies of NK cell migration and cytotoxicity do not properly reproduce the structural and mechanical cues that shape the migratory response of NK cells in vivo.Therefore, it is desirable to implement 3-D in vitro migration and killing assays that better mimic in vivo conditions. Another aim of this thesis is to develop a microwell-based assay for 3-D time-lapse imaging of NK cell migration and cytotoxicity.Using a newly developed single-cell imaging and screening assay, we trap small populations of NK and target cells inside microwells, where they are imaged over extended periods of time. We have performed experiments on resting, IL-2-activated, educated, and non-educated NK cells and quantified their migration behavior and cytotoxicity. One major discovery was that a small population of NK cells mediate a majority of the cytotoxicity directed against target cells. A particularly cytotoxic group of cells, termed serial killers, displayed faster and more effective cytotoxicity. Serial killers were more prevalent in IL-2-activated and educated NK cells, but were also present in a small fraction of resting and non-educated NK cells. IL-2-activated and educated NK cells displayed more dynamic migration behavior than resting and non-educated NK cells. Additionally, IL-2-activated and educated NK cells spent more time in NK–target cell conjugates and post-conjugation attachment than resting and non-educated NK cells.To more closely approximate in vivo conditions, we have combined our microwell assay with an interstitial ECM-like matrix. The microwells allow for long-term imaging of NK–target cell interactions within a confined 3-D volume. NK cells were tracked and interactions with target cells were scored for duration and outcome. The developed microwell-based assay is suitable for 3-D time-lapse imaging of NK cell migration and cytotoxicity. As it allows for experiments with human cells, it could be used as a complement to in vivo imaging.We have quantified NK cell behavioral heterogeneity and developed tools that can be used to further study and elucidate differences in the behavior of single immune cells. These tools advance current methods for single-cell analysis, which will likely play an even more important role in the study of immune responses in the future.

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