We had shown earlier that the concentrations of circulating interleukin-18 (IL-18) are increased significantly in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected persons compared to HIV-seronegative healthy subjects. In the present study, we investigated the consequences of these elevated levels of IL-18 on natural killer (NK) cells and the immunopathogenesis of AIDS. We show here an inverse correlation between IL-18 concentrations and absolute numbers of various subsets of NK cells in infected persons. Recombinant human IL-18 caused increased death of a human NK cell line, as well as of primary human NK cells in vitro. The IL-18-mediated cell death was dependent upon Fas-FasL interactions and tumor necrosis factor alpha. IL-18 induced the expression of FasL on NK cells, increased the transcription from the human FasL promoter, reduced the expression of Bcl-XL in NK cells, and increased their sensitivity to FasL-mediated cell death. These results suggest that increased IL-18 concentrations present in the circulation of HIV-infected persons contribute to the immunopathogenesis of AIDS by altering NK cell homeostasis.
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