Natural killer cells improve hematopoietic stem cell engraftment by increasing stem cell clonogenicity in vitro and in a humanized mouse model

Cord blood (CB) is increasingly used as a source of hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) for transplantation. Low incidence and severity of graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) and a robust graft-versus-leukemia (GvL) effect are observed following CB transplantation (CBT). However, its main disadvantages are a limited number of HSC per unit, delayed immune reconstitution and a higher incidence of infection. Unmanipulated grafts contain accessory cells that may facilitate HSC engraftment. Therefore, the effects of accessory cells, particularly natural killer (NK) cells, on human CB HSC (CBSC) functions were assessed in vitro and in vivo. CBSC cultured with autologous CB NK cells showed higher levels of CXCR4 expression, a higher migration index and a higher number of colony forming units (CFU) after short-term and long-term cultures. We found that CBSC secreted CXCL9 following interaction with CB NK cells. In addition, recombinant CXCL9 increased CBSC clonogenicity, recapitulating the effect observed of CB NK cells on CBSC. Moreover, the co-infusion of CBSC with CB NK cells led to a higher level of CBSC engraftment in NSG mouse model. The results presented in this work offer the basis for an alternative approach to enhance HSC engraftment that could improve the outcome of CBT.