T-BET and EOMES sustain mature human NK cell identity and antitumor function
Since the T-box transcription factors (TFs) T-BET and EOMES are necessary for initiation of NK cell development, their ongoing requirement for mature NK cell homeostasis, function, and molecular programming remains unclear. To address this, T-BET and EOMES were deleted in unexpanded primary human NK cells using CRISPR/Cas9. Deleting these TFs compromised in vivo antitumor response of human NK cells. Mechanistically, T-BET and EOMES were required for normal NK cell proliferation and persistence in vivo. NK cells lacking T-BET and EOMES also exhibited defective responses to cytokine stimulation. Single-cell RNA-Seq revealed a specific T-box transcriptional program in human NK cells, which was rapidly lost following T-BET and EOMES deletion. Further, T-BET- and EOMES-deleted CD56bright NK cells acquired an innate lymphoid cell precursor-like (ILCP-like) profile with increased expression of the ILC-3-associated TFs RORC and AHR, revealing a role for T-box TFs in maintaining mature NK cell phenotypes and an unexpected role of suppressing alternative ILC lineages. Our study reveals the critical importance of sustained EOMES and T-BET expression to orchestrate mature NK cell function and identity.