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Human CMV (HCMV) has evolved several strategies to evade the immune system of the infected host. Here, we investigated the role of the HCMV-encoded protein UL40 in the modulation of NK cell lysis. UL40 carries in its leader sequence a nonameric peptide similar to that found in many HLA class I molecules leader sequences. This peptide up-regulates the expression of HLA-E, the ligand for the NK cell inhibitory receptor CD94/NKG2A. The UL40-encoded HLA-E-binding peptide was present in all HCMV clinical (4636, 13B, 109B, 3C) and laboratory (AD169) strains analyzed. However, transfection of UL40 in different cell lines (293T, 721.221, K562) did not consistently confer protection from NK lysis (as measured using NKL and the newly generated NK line Nishi), despite a moderate up-regulation of HLA-E. Interestingly, combined transfection and treatment with IFN-gamma increased the inhibitory effect, via an HLA-E- and CD94/NKG2A-dependent mechanism. Although cells transfected with UL40 derived from either AD169 or 3C showed protection from NK cell lysis, infection of fibroblasts with the viruses resulted in a strong inhibition only with the clinical strain 3C. Our results suggest that UL40 and IFN-gamma-dependent up-regulation of HLA-E is only one possible mechanism to avoid NK cell recognition of HCMV infected cells.

Original publication




Journal article


Eur j immunol

Publication Date





2926 - 2935


Amino Acid Sequence, Antigens, CD, Cytotoxicity, Immunologic, HLA Antigens, Histocompatibility Antigens Class I, Humans, Interferon-gamma, K562 Cells, Killer Cells, Natural, Lectins, C-Type, Membrane Glycoproteins, Molecular Sequence Data, NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily D, Transfection, Viral Proteins