Tryptophan and the immune response

Immunol Cell Biol. 2003 Aug;81(4):247-65. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1711.2003.t01-1-01177.x.


The immune system continuously modulates the balance between responsiveness to pathogens and tolerance to non-harmful antigens. The mechanisms that mediate tolerance are not well understood, but recent findings have implicated tryptophan catabolism through the kynurenine metabolic pathway as one of many mechanisms involved. The enzymes that break down tryptophan through this pathway are found in numerous cell types, including cells of the immune system. Some of these enzymes are induced by immune activation, including the rate limiting enzyme present in macrophages and dendritic cells, indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO). It has recently been found that inhibition of IDO can result in the rejection of allogenic fetuses, suggesting that tryptophan breakdown is necessary for maintaining aspects of immune tolerance. Two theories have been proposed to explain how tryptophan catabolism facilitates tolerance. One theory posits that tryptophan breakdown suppresses T cell proliferation by dramatically reducing the supply of this critical amino acid. The other theory postulates that the downstream metabolites of tryptophan catabolism act to suppress certain immune cells, probably by pro-apoptotic mechanisms. Reconciling these disparate views is crucial to understanding immune-related tryptophan catabolism and the roles it plays in immune tolerance. In this review we examine the issue in detail, and offer additional insight provided by studies with antibodies to quinolinate, a tryptophan catabolite which is also necessary for nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD +) production. In addition to the immunomodulatory actions of tryptophan catabolites, we discuss the possible involvement of quinolinate as a means of replenishing NAD + in leucocytes, which is depleted by oxidative stress during an immune response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dendritic Cells / physiology
  • Dioxygenases*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Immune Tolerance*
  • Indoleamine-Pyrrole 2,3,-Dioxygenase
  • Kynurenine / metabolism
  • NAD / metabolism
  • Oxygenases / biosynthesis
  • Oxygenases / metabolism
  • Poly(ADP-ribose) Polymerases / metabolism
  • Quinolinic Acid / immunology
  • Quinolinic Acid / metabolism
  • Tryptophan / biosynthesis
  • Tryptophan / metabolism*
  • Tryptophan Oxygenase / metabolism


  • Indoleamine-Pyrrole 2,3,-Dioxygenase
  • NAD
  • Kynurenine
  • Tryptophan
  • Oxygenases
  • Dioxygenases
  • Tryptophan Oxygenase
  • Poly(ADP-ribose) Polymerases
  • Quinolinic Acid