The innate immune system represents a critical first line of host response to infectious, injurious and inflammatory insults. NKT cells (natural killer T-cells) are an important, but relatively poorly understood, component of the innate immune response. Moreover, NKT cells are enriched within the liver, suggesting that within the hepatic compartment NKT cells probably fulfil important roles in the modulation of the immune response to infection or injury. NKT cells are characterized by their rapid activation and secretion of large amounts of numerous types of cytokines, including those within the Th1-type, Th2-type and Th17-type groups, which in turn can interact with a multitude of other cell types within the liver. In addition, NKT cells are capable of participating in a wide array of effector functions with regards to other cell types via NKT cell-surface-molecule expression [e.g. FASL (FAS ligand) and CD40L (CD40 ligand)] and the release of mediators (e.g. perforin and granzyme) contained in cellular granules, which in turn can activate or destroy other cells (i.e. immune or parenchymal cells) within the liver. Given the huge scope of potential actions that can be mediated by NKT cells, it has become increasingly apparent that NKT cells may fulfil both beneficial (e.g. clearance of virally infected cells) and harmful (e.g. induction of autoimmunity) roles in the setting of liver disease. This review will outline the possible roles which may be played by NKT cells in the setting of specific liver diseases or conditions, and will discuss the NKT cell in the context of its role as either a ‘friend’ or a ‘foe’ with respect to the outcome of these liver disorders.

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