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The liver’s killer instincts

Zhi-Gang Tian’s work on a natural killer cell subset changed liver immunity research.Credit: Selvanegra/iStock/Getty Images

The discovery of a unique subset of natural killer (NK) cells in the liver by Zhi-Gang Tian and his colleagues changed immunology of the organ.

Finding that the liver is enriched with a range of innate immune cells, including NK cells, led to recognition of the liver as an organ with predominant innate immunity, explains Tian.

In 2013, Tian’s group discovered a unique NK cell subset in the liver that helped explain why many viruses cause lifelong liver-specific infections. “Targeting liver-resident NK cells or their surface immune-regulatory molecules might provide therapeutic options for chronic liver disease,” he says.

Work published in Science in 2021 by Tian’s group has also changed views on the generation site of NK cells. They showed that the adult liver contained hematopoietic stem cells derived from the fetal liver, which could develop into liver-resident NK cells.

In the last few years the group has focused on maximizing NK cell-mediated anti-tumour activity and improving current cancer chemotherapy, while insights have also been gleaned on the mechanisms of chronic viral hepatitis and hepatocellular carcinoma.

“These findings should encourage researchers to study tissue-specific NK cell subsets in other tissue or organs, and their roles in other organ-specific disease,” says Tian.

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