A lymphocyte is a white blood cell that contains a large nucleus (Figure 17.10). Most lymphocytes are associated with the adaptive immune response, but infected cells are identified and destroyed by natural killer cells, the only lymphocytes of the innate immune system. A natural killer (NK) cell is a lymphocyte that can kill cells infected with viruses (or cancerous cells). NK cells identify intracellular infections, especially from viruses, by the altered expression of major histocompatibility class(MHC) I molecules on the surface of infected cells. MHC class I molecules are proteins on the surfaces of all nucleated cells that provide a sample of the cell’s internal environment at any given time. Unhealthy cells, whether infected or cancerous, display an altered MHC class I complement on their cell surfaces.
After the NK cell detects an infected or tumor cell, it induces programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Phagocytic cells then come along and digest the cell debris left behind. NK cells are constantly patrolling the body and are an effective mechanism for controlling potential infections and preventing cancer progression. The various types of immune cells are shown in Figure 17.11.