During evolution, humans have developed a diverse and complex defence system to protect themselves against pathogens. An important part of this system are the immune cells Natural Killer (NK) cells. NK cells are part of the first line of defence after an infection or during the formation of tumors. Via special proteins on the surface, KIR receptors, NK cells recognise other cells that show abnormal behaviour and then clear up.
The KIR receptors on the NK cells have been extensively studied in humans. We know that KIR receptors vary between individuals in number, structure and function. Almost every person has a unique set of KIR receptors. It is also known that these regulatory proteins are often involved in biological processes, for instance during pregnancy, but we also know that they may affect the course of diseases. It is therefore important that we not only know what these receptors look like and how they work in humans, but also to compare the KIR system in animals. In a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Immunology, Ronald Bontrop, along with his German colleague Lutz Walter, compiled results from several research groups.
How does animal research help us?
The KIR receptors have been studied in macaques, an animal species that is widely used as a model for various life-threatening diseases. Better understanding of their immune systems will eventually result in better designed research and reduced number of animals per experiment.
Moreover, studying the KIR receptors in chimpanzees and orangutans, primate species that are not used in biomedical research, is tells us how the immune system evolved during evolution. A completely different side of the KIR receptor research in animals concerns animal husbandry. In order to keep these animals, such as goats and chickens, as healthy as possible, it is important to know whether they have a relevant immune system like primates. Animal welfare of livestock must be ensured as it is of great economic importance.
The review article provides an overview of the KIR receptor research in different animal species and how this is linked to society in different ways.