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Control of CD56 expression and tumor cell cytotoxicity in human Vγ2Vδ2 T cells

Elizabeth M Urban12, Haishan Li1, Cheryl Armstrong1, Chiara Focaccetti13, Cristiana Cairo1 and C David Pauza1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, 21201, USA

2 Graduate Program in Microbiology and Immunology, University of Maryland, Baltimore, MD

3 University of Rome Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy

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BMC Immunology 2009, 10:50  doi:10.1186/1471-2172-10-50

Published: 21 September 2009



In lymphocyte subsets, expression of CD56 (neural cell adhesion molecule-1) correlates with cytotoxic effector activity. For cells bearing the Vγ2Vδ2 T cell receptor, isoprenoid pyrophosphate stimulation leads to uniform activation and proliferation, but only a fraction of cells express CD56 and display potent cytotoxic activity against tumor cells. Our goal was to show whether CD56 expression was regulated stochastically, similar to conventional activation antigens, or whether CD56 defined a lineage of cells committed to the cytotoxic phenotype.


Tracking individual cell clones defined by their Vγ2 chain CDR3 region sequences, we found that CD56 was expressed on precursor cytotoxic T cells already present in the population irrespective of their capacity to proliferate after antigen stimulation. Public T cell receptor sequences found in the CD56+ subset from one individual might appear in the CD56- subset of another donor. The commitment of individual clones to CD56+ or CD56- lineages was stable for each donor over a 1 year interval.


The ability to express CD56 was not predicted by TCR sequence or by the strength of signal received by the TCR. For γδ T cells, cytotoxic effector function is acquired when cytotoxic precursors within the population are stimulated to proliferate and express CD56. Expression of CD56 defines a committed lineage to the cytotoxic phenotype.