Cell-mediated immunity is an immune response that does not involve antibodies but rather involves the activation of macrophages, natural killer cells (NK), antigen-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocytes, and the release of various cytokines in response to an antigen. Historically, the immune system was separated into two branches: humoral immunity, for which the protective function of immunization could be found in the humor (cell-free bodily fluid or serum) and cellular immunity, for which the protective function of immunization was associated with cells.
Cellular immunity protects the body by:
- activating antigen-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocytes that are able to induce apoptosis in body cells displaying epitopes of foreign antigen on their surface, such as virus-infected cells, cells with intracellular bacteria, and cancer cells displaying tumor antigens;
- activating macrophages and natural killer cells, enabling them to destroy intracellular pathogens; and
- stimulating cells to secrete a variety of cytokines that influence the function of other cells involved in adaptive immune responses and innate immune responses.
Cell-mediated immunity is directed primarily at microbes that survive in phagocytes and microbes that infect non-phagocytic cells. It is most effective in removing virus-infected cells, but also participates in defending against fungi, protozoans, cancers, and intracellular bacteria. It also plays a major role in transplant rejection.