Severe COVID-19 patients display hyper-activated NK cells and NK cell-platelet aggregates

Bert Malengier-Devlies, Jessica Filtjens, Kourosh Ahmadzadeh, Bram Boeckx, Jessica Vandenhaute, Amber De Visscher, Eline Bernaerts, Tania Mitera, Cato Jacobs, Lore Vanderbeke, Pierre Van Mol, Yannick Van Herck, Greet Hermans, Philippe Meersseman, Alexander Wilmer, Mieke Gouwy, Abhishek D Garg, Stephanie Humblet-Baron, Frederik De Smet, Kimberly MartinodEls Wauters, Paul Proost, Carine Wouters, Georges Leclercq, Diether Lambrechts, Joost Wauters, Patrick Matthys

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

COVID-19 is characterised by a broad spectrum of clinical and pathological features. Natural killer (NK) cells play an important role in innate immune responses to viral infections. Here, we analysed the phenotype and activity of NK cells in the blood of COVID-19 patients using flow cytometry, single-cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq), and a cytotoxic killing assay. In the plasma of patients, we quantified the main cytokines and chemokines. Our cohort comprises COVID-19 patients hospitalised in a low-care ward unit (WARD), patients with severe COVID-19 disease symptoms hospitalised in intensive care units (ICU), and post-COVID-19 patients, who were discharged from hospital six weeks earlier. NK cells from hospitalised COVID-19 patients displayed an activated phenotype with substantial differences between WARD and ICU patients and the timing when samples were taken post-onset of symptoms. While NK cells from COVID-19 patients at an early stage of infection showed increased expression of the cytotoxic molecules perforin and granzyme A and B, NK cells from patients at later stages of COVID-19 presented enhanced levels of IFN-γ and TNF-α which were measured ex vivo in the absence of usual in vitro stimulation. These activated NK cells were phenotyped as CD49a+CD69a+CD107a+ cells, and their emergence in patients correlated to the number of neutrophils, and plasma IL-15, a key cytokine in NK cell activation. Despite lower amounts of cytotoxic molecules in NK cells of patients with severe symptoms, majority of COVID-19 patients displayed a normal cytotoxic killing of Raji tumour target cells. In vitro stimulation of patients blood cells by IL-12+IL-18 revealed a defective IFN-γ production in NK cells of ICU patients only, indicative of an exhausted phenotype. ScRNA-seq revealed, predominantly in patients with severe COVID-19 disease symptoms, the emergence of an NK cell subset with a platelet gene signature that we identified by flow and imaging cytometry as aggregates of NK cells with CD42a+CD62P+ activated platelets. Post-COVID-19 patients show slow recovery of NK cell frequencies and phenotype. Our study points to substantial changes in NK cell phenotype during COVID-19 disease and forms a basis to explore the contribution of platelet-NK cell aggregates to antiviral immunity against SARS-CoV-2 and disease pathology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)861251
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Humans
  • Granzymes/metabolism
  • COVID-19
  • Perforin/metabolism
  • Interleukin-15/metabolism
  • Interleukin-18/metabolism
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha/metabolism
  • Blood Platelets/metabolism
  • Integrin alpha1/metabolism
  • Killer Cells, Natural
  • Cytokines/metabolism
  • Chemokines/metabolism
  • Interleukin-12/metabolism
  • Antiviral Agents/metabolism
  • RNA/metabolism


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