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Cytokines (Greek cyto-, cell; and -kinos, movement) are any of a number of substances that are secreted by specific cells of the immune system which carry signals locally between cells, and thus have an effect on other cells.[1] They are a category of signaling molecules that are used extensively in cellular communication. They are proteins, peptides, or glycoproteins. The term cytokine encompasses a large and diverse family of polypeptide regulators that are produced widely throughout the body by cells of diverse embryological origin.[2]

Basically, the term "cytokine" has been used to refer to the immunomodulating agents (interleukins, interferons, etc.). Conflicting opinion exists about what is termed a cytokine and what is termed a hormone. Anatomic and structural distinctions between cytokines and classic hormones are fading as we learn more about each. Classic protein hormones circulate in nanomolar (10-9) concentrations that usually vary by less than one order of magnitude. In contrast, some cytokines (such as IL-6) circulate in picomolar (10-12) concentrations that can increase up to 1,000-fold during trauma or infection. The widespread distribution of cellular sources for cytokines may be a feature that differentiates them from hormones. Virtually all nucleated cells, but especially endo/epithelial cells and resident macrophages (many near the interface with the external environment) are potent producers of IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-α. In contrast, classic hormones, such as insulin, are secreted from discrete glands (e.g., the pancreas).[3] As of 2008, the current terminology refers to cytokines as immunomodulating agents. However, more research is needed in this area of defining cytokines and hormones.

Part of the difficulty with distinguishing cytokines from hormones is that some of the immunomodulating effects of cytokines are systemic rather than local. For instance, to use hormone terminology, the action of cytokines may be autocrine or paracrine in chemotaxis and endocrine as a pyrogen. Further, as molecules, cytokines are not limited to their immunomodulatory role. For instance, cytokines are also involved in several developmental processes during embryogenesis.



Each cytokine has a matching cell-surface receptor. Subsequent cascades of intracellular signalling then alter cell functions. This may include the upregulation and/or downregulation of several genes and their transcription factors, resulting in the production of other cytokines, an increase in the number of surface receptors for other molecules, or the suppression of their own effect by feedback inhibition.

The effect of a particular cytokine on a given cell depends on the cytokine, its extracellular abundance, the presence and abundance of the complementary receptor on the cell surface, and downstream signals activated by receptor binding; these last two factors can vary by cell type. Cytokines are characterized by considerable "redundancy", in that many cytokines appear to share similar functions.

It seems to be a paradox that cytokines binding to antibodies have a stronger immune effect than the cytokine alone. This may lead to lower therapeutic doses.

Oversecretion of cytokines can trigger a dangerous syndrome known as a cytokine storm; this may have been the cause of severe adverse events during a clinical trial of TGN1412.


Cytokines have been classed as lymphokines, interleukins, and chemokines, based on their presumed function, cell of secretion, or target of action. Because cytokines are characterised by considerable redundancy and pleiotropism, such distinctions, allowing for exceptions, are obsolete.

  • The term interleukin was initially used by researchers for those cytokines whose presumed targets are principally leukocytes. It is now used largely for designation of newer cytokine molecules discovered every day and bears little relation to their presumed function. The vast majority of these are produced by T-helper cells.
  • The term chemokine refers to a specific class of cytokines that mediates chemoattraction (chemotaxis) between cells.

IL-8 (interleukin-8) is the only chemokine originally named an interleukin.




Structural homology has been able to partially distinguish between cytokines that do not demonstrate a considerable degree of redundancy so that they can be classified into four types:

  • The four α-helix bundle family - Member cytokines have three-dimensional structures with four bundles of α-helices. This family in turn is divided into three sub-families:
    1. the IL-2 subfamily
    2. the interferon (IFN) subfamily
    3. the IL-10 subfamily.
    • The first of these three subfamilies is the largest. It contains several non-immunological cytokines including erythropoietin (EPO) and thrombopoietin (THPO). Also, four α-helix bundle cytokines can be grouped into long-chain and short-chain cytokines.
  • the IL-1 family, which primarily includes IL-1 and IL-18
  • the IL-17 family, which has yet to be completely characterized, though member cytokines have a specific effect in promoting proliferation of T-cells that cause cytotoxic effects


A classification that proves more useful in clinical and experimental practice divides immunological cytokines into those that enhance cellular immune responses, type 1 (IFN-γ, TGF-β, etc.), and type 2 (IL-4, IL-10, IL-13, etc.), which favor antibody responses.

A key focus of interest has been that cytokines in one of these two sub-sets tend to inhibit the effects of those in the other. Dysregulation of this tendency is under intensive study for its possible role in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disorders.

Several inflammatory cytokines are induced by oxidant stress[4][5]. The fact that cytokines, themselves trigger the release of other cytokines[6][7] and lead also to increased oxidant stress, makes them important in chronic inflammation.

Cytokine receptors

In recent years, the cytokine receptors have come to demand the attention of more investigators than cytokines themselves, partly because of their remarkable characteristics, and partly because a deficiency of cytokine receptors has now been directly linked to certain debilitating immunodeficiency states. In this regard, and also because the redundancy and pleiomorphism of cytokines are, in fact, a consequence of their homologous receptors, many authorities think that a classification of cytokine receptors would be more clinically and experimentally useful.

A classification of cytokine receptors based on their three-dimensional structure has, therefore, been attempted. Such a classification, though seemingly cumbersome, provides several unique perspectives for attractive pharmacotherapeutic targets.

Plasma levels

Plasma levels of various cytokines may give information on the presence, or even predictive value of inflammatory processes involved in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis[8], as well as immunomodulatory effects of foods or drugs (eg. [9]).

Cysteine-knot cytokines

Members of the transforming growth factor beta superfamily belong to this group, including TGF-β1, TGF-β2 and TGF-β3.

See also


  1. ^ The New Oxford American Dictionary
  2. ^ Gilman A, Goodman LS, Hardman JG, Limbird LE (2001). Goodman & Gilman's the pharmacological basis of therapeutics. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-135469-7. 
  3. ^ Cannon JG (2000). "Inflammatory Cytokines in Nonpathological States". News Physiol Sci. 15: 298–303. PMID 11390930. 
  4. ^ Vlahopoulos S, Boldogh I, Casola A, Brasier AR. Nuclear factor-kappaB-dependent induction of interleukin-8 gene expression by tumor necrosis factor alpha: evidence for an antioxidant sensitive activating pathway distinct from nuclear translocation. Blood. 1999 Sep 15;94(6):1878-89. PMID: 10477716
  5. ^ David F, Farley J, Huang H, Lavoie JP, Laverty S. Cytokine and chemokine gene expression of IL-1beta stimulated equine articular chondrocytes. Vet Surg. 2007 Apr;36(3):221-7. Erratum in: Vet Surg. 2008 Jul;37(5):499.PMID: 17461946
  6. ^ Carpenter LR, Moy JN, Roebuck KA. Respiratory syncytial virus and TNF alpha induction of chemokine gene expression involves differential activation of Rel A and NF-kappa B1. BMC Infect Dis. 2002 Mar 28;2:5. PMID: 11922866
  7. ^ Tian B, Nowak DE, Brasier AR. A TNF-induced gene expression program under oscillatory NF-kappaB control. BMC Genomics. 2005 Sep 28;6:137. PMID: 16191192
  8. ^ Kokkonen, H. Arthritis & Rheumatism, Feb. 2, 2010; vol 62: pp 383-391
  9. ^

Further reading

  • Editors, John I. Gallin, Ralph Snyderman; associate editors, Douglas T. Fearon, Barton F. Haynes, Carl Nathan (1999). Gallin J, Snyderman R. ed. Inflammation: Basic Principles and Clinical Correlates (3rd ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott William and Wilkins. ISBN 0397517599. 
  • Janeway CA, et al., ed (2005). Immunobiology. The immune system in Health and Disease (6th ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis Group; Garland Science. ISBN 0006044174. 
  • David Male... [et al.] (2006). Roitt I, et al.. ed. Immunology (7th ed.). London: Mosby. ISBN 0323033997. 
  • Prlic M, Bevan MJ (March 2006). "Immunology. An antibody paradox, resolved". Science (journal) 311 (5769): 1875–6. doi:10.1126/science.1126030. PMID 16574856. 

External links


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