Natural killer (NK) cells are one of the main cellular components of the innate immune system. They play an important role in the immune response against infections as well as tumour cells and therefore have two major properties: production of immune regulatory cytokines and chemokines as well as cytolytic destruction of particular target cells. The existence of NK cells in swine is well known as well as the phenotype of resting NK cells, but their response following activation by cytokines is still poorly understood. Therefore, we tested the influence of the immune regulatory cytokines IL-2, IL-12 and IL-18 on cytolytic activity, phenotype, IFN-gamma production and the accumulation of perforin in cytoplasm of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) as well as purified NK cells. NK cells were enriched from PBMC using a magnetic cell separation (MACS) strategy with monoclonal antibodies against CD3, CD21 and SWC3, thereby removing T-, B- and myeloid cells. Respective fractions were used in flow cytometry (FCM) based cytolytic assays with the human tumour cell line K562 as target. After stimulation with the cytokines described above, the NK cell enriched CD3(-)CD21(-)SWC3(-) fraction showed an evident increase in the cytolytic activity compared to PBMC. This enhanced cytolytic activity was accompanied by a strong enrichment of IFN-gamma producing cells when a combination of all three cytokines (IL-2/IL-12/IL-18) was used; as determined in ELISPOT assays and intracellular staining of IFN-gamma in FCM. Also, the combination of these three cytokines led to an accumulation of perforin in the cytoplasm and an up-regulation of CD25 compared to control cultures incubated in medium without cytokines. The experiments performed clearly indicate a stimulatory role and strong synergistic effects of the investigated cytokines in the activation of porcine NK cells in vitro, inducing IFN-gamma, perforin production and cytotoxicity against target cells.