Cytokines (Greek cyto-, cell; and -kinos, movement) is the name used to describe a diverse group of soluble proteins, peptides, or glycoproteins which act as hormonal regulators or signaling molecules at nano- to- picomolar concentrations and help in cell signaling. The term "cytokine" encompasses a large and diverse family of regulators produced throughout the body by cells of diverse embryological origin.[1]

The term "cytokine" has been used to refer to the immunomodulating agents, such as interleukins and interferons. They are regulators of host responses to infection, immune responses, inflammation, and trauma.[2] Some of them are proinflammatory; these are necessary to initiate an inflammatory response necessary to recruit granulocytes, and later on, lymphocytes, to fight disease. Excessive inflammation, however, is sometimes the pathogenicity of certain diseases. Other cytokines are anti-inflammatory and serve to reduce inflammation and promote healing once the injury/infection/foreign body has been destroyed.[2]

Biochemists disagree as to which molecules should be termed cytokines and which hormones. As we learn more about each, anatomic and structural distinctions between the two are fading. Classic protein hormones circulate in nanomolar (10-9M) concentrations that usually vary by less than one order of magnitude. In contrast, some cytokines (such as IL-6) circulate in picomolar (10-12M) 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.[3] In contrast, classic hormones, such as insulin, are secreted from discrete glands (e.g., the pancreas).[4] 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[5][nb 1][6][nb 2]

Discovery of cytokines

Barry Bloom and John David independently discovered and characterized the activity of a soluble molecule released from lymphocytes that inhibited the random migration of macrophages (currently known as Macrophage migration inhibitory factor). They loaded macrophages from an unimmunized animal into a capillary tube, and then placed medium from either unstimulated lymphocytes or stimulated lymphocytes. They found that the medium from the stimulated lymphocytes prevented the random migration of macrophages out of the tube. This showed that there was a way for cell-cell communication that did not require cell-cell contact.


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.
  • Lymphokines - produced by lymphocytes
  • Monokines - produced exclusively by monocytes
  • Interferons - involved in antiviral responses
  • Colony Stimulating Factors - support the growth of cells in semisolid medias
  • Chemokines mediate chemoattraction (chemotaxis) between cells.



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, the IL-2 subfamily, is the largest. It contains several non-immunological cytokines including erythropoietin (EPO) and thrombopoietin (TPO). Furthermore, 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.[7][8] The fact that cytokines themselves trigger the release of other cytokines[9][10] and also lead to increased oxidant stress makes them important in chronic inflammation, as well as other immunoresponses, such as fever and acute phase proteins of the liver (IL-1,6,12, INF-a).


Main article: Cytokine receptor

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.

  • Immunoglobulin (Ig) superfamily, which are ubiquitously present throughout several cells and tissues of the vertebrate body, and share structural homology with immunoglobulins (antibodies), cell adhesion molecules, and even some cytokines. Examples: IL-1 receptor types.
  • Hemopoietic Growth Factor (type 1) family, whose members have certain conserved motifs in their extracellular amino-acid domain. The IL-2 receptor belongs to this chain, whose γ-chain (common to several other cytokines) deficiency is directly responsible for the x-linked form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (X-SCID).
  • Interferon (type 2) family, whose members are receptors for IFN β and γ.
  • Tumor necrosis factors (TNF) (type 3) family, whose members share a cysteine-rich common extracellular binding domain, and includes several other non-cytokine ligands like CD40, CD27 and CD30, besides the ligands on which the family is named (TNF).
  • Seven transmembrane helix family, the ubiquitous receptor type of the animal kingdom. All G protein-coupled receptors (for hormones and neurotransmitters) belong to this family. Chemokine receptors, two of which act as binding proteins for HIV (CD4 and CCR5), also belong to this family.
  • Interleukin-17 receptor (IL-17R) family, which shows little homology with any other cytokine receptor family. Structural motifs conserved between members of this family include: an extracellular fibronectin III-like domain, a transmembrane domain and a cytoplasmic SERIF domain. The known members of this family are as follows: IL-17RA, IL-17RB, IL-17RC, IL17RD and IL-17RE.[11]
  • Interleukin-12 (IL-12),secreted by Macrophage and act on THo (t-helper cell 0) and convert into TH1 (t-helper cell 1)which produce γ-IF.γ-IF activates Macrophage into super active cell which start cell mediated response.


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.

Said et al. showed that inflammatory cytokines cause an IL-10-dependent inhibition of [12] T-cell expansion and function by up-regulating PD-1 levels on monocytes which leads to IL-10 production by monocytes after binding of PD-1 by PD-L.[12]

Adverse reactions to cytokines are characterized by local inflammation and/or ulceration at the injection sites. Occasionally such reactions are seen with more widespread papular eruptions.[13]


Adverse effects of cytokines have been linked to many disease states and conditions ranging from major depression[14] and Alzheimer's disease[15] to cancer[16] with levels either being elevated or changed. Over-secretion 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. Cytokine storms also were the main cause of death in the 1918 "Spanish Flu" pandemic. Deaths were weighted more heavily towards people with healthy immune systems, due to its ability to produce stronger immune responses, like increasing cytokine levels. Another important[17] example of cytokine storm is seen in acute pancreatitis. Cytokines are integral and implicated in all angles of the cascade resulting in the systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multi organ failure associated with this intra-abdominal catastrophe.

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,[18] as well as immunomodulatory effects of foods or drugs.[19] In addition, elevated levels of IL-7, an important cytokine involved in T cell homeostasis, have been detected in the plasma of HIV-infected patients.[20]

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



External links

  • Cytokine Signalling Forum
  • Cytokine Gene Summary, Ontology, Pathways and More - Immunology Database and Analysis Portal (ImmPort)
  • Cytokine Tutorial. dead link.
  • Cell Interactions: Cytokines. inactive link
  • Reperfusion Injury in Stroke.
  • CopeWithCytoKines Cytokines Online Pathfinder Encyclopaedia

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