Author(s): Zerbini A, Pilli M, Laccabue D, Pelosi G, Molinari A
BACKGROUND & AIMS: Radiofrequency thermal ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive technique used as standard local therapy of hepatocellular carcinoma and second-line treatment for metastatic liver tumors. Studies in preclinical models and in patients have shown that thermal destruction of tumor tissue can enhance anti-tumor cellular responses, but our knowledge of its impact on natural killer (NK) cells is still very limited.
METHODS: Thirty-seven patients undergoing RFA for hepatocellular carcinoma were studied for peripheral blood lymphocytes counts followed by phenotypic and functional characterization of NK-cell population.
RESULTS: Peripheral blood lymphocytes kinetics revealed an increased frequency and absolute number of NK cells expressing higher levels of activatory along with reduced levels of inhibitory NK receptors, and increased functional NK-cell activity. A prevalent expansion of the CD3(-)CD56(dim) NK subset was observed compared to the CD3(-)CD56(bright) counterpart. Interferon-gamma production, anti-K562 cell cytotoxicity, and antibody-dependent cell cytotoxicity, appeared consistently increased in terms of both absolute activity and killing efficiency at 4 weeks after RFA, as compared to baseline. Interestingly, when recurrence-free survival was assessed in 2 groups of patients separated according to higher vs lower enhancement of cytotoxicity and/or interferon-gamma production, a significant difference was observed, thus suggesting a potential predictive role of NK functional assays on efficacy of RFA.
CONCLUSIONS: RFA can lead to stimulation of NK cells with a more differentiated and proactivatory phenotypic profile with general increase of functional activities. This observation may be relevant for development of adjuvant immunotherapeutic strategies aimed at enhancing NK-cell responses against primary and metastatic liver tumors.