It is well established that natural killer (NK) cells play an important role in the immunity against cancer, while the involvement of other recently identified, NK-related innate lymphoid cells is still poorly defined. In the haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for the therapy of high-risk leukemias, NK cells have been shown to exert a key role in killing leukemic blasts residual after conditioning. While the clinical results in the cure of leukemias are excellent, the exploitation of NK cells in the therapy of solid tumors is still limited and unsatisfactory. In solid tumors, NK cell function may be inhibited via different mechanisms, occurring primarily at the tumor site. The cellular interactions in the tumor microenvironment involve tumor cells, stromal cells and resident or recruited leukocytes and may favor tumor evasion from the host's defenses. In this context, a number of cytokines, growth factors and enzymes synthesized by tumor cells, stromal cells, suppressive/regulatory myeloid and lymphoid cells may substantially impair the function of different tumor-reactive effector cells, including NK cells. The identification and characterization of such mechanisms may offer clues for the development of new immunotherapeutic strategies to restore effective anti-tumor responses. In order to harness NK cell-based immunotherapies, several approaches have been proposed, including reinforcement of NK cell cytotoxicity by means of specific cytokines, antibodies or drugs. These new tools may improve NK cell function and/or increase tumor susceptibility to NK-mediated killing. Hence, the integration of NK-based immunotherapies with conventional anti-tumor therapies may increase chances of successful cancer treatment.
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