IL-21: a novel IL-2-family lymphokine that modulates B, T, and natural killer cell responses

J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003 Dec;112(6):1033-45. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2003.08.039.


IL-21 is a recently described type I cytokine produced by activated CD4(+) T cells that profoundly affects the growth, survival, and functional activation of B, T, and natural killer lymphocytes in concert with other cytokines or activating stimuli. Structurally, IL-21 is predicted to display a 4-helix-bundle-type fold with significant homology to IL-2, IL-4, and IL-15 and mediates its biologic effects through a novel type I cytokine receptor, IL-21R, in conjunction with the common cytokine receptor gamma chain (gammac) of the IL-2, IL-4, IL-7, IL-9, and IL-15 receptors. As a new member of the gammac-dependent cytokine family, there is significant interest in IL-21, in part because of its potential to provide new insights into the immunologic phenotype caused by gammac deficiency. IL-21R knockout mice have been generated that have normal lymphoid cell development yet exhibit impaired production of the immunoglobulin IgG(1) and increased IgE responses after immunization. As expected for cytokines that use gammac, recent studies indicate that IL-21 induces Janus kinase 1 (JAK1) and JAK3 activation to initiate signal transduction, but unlike these other gammac-dependent cytokines, which predominantly activate signal transducer and activator of transcription 5 (STAT5), IL-21 preferentially activates STAT1 and STAT3. IL-21 potently enhances primary antigen responses and the effector functions of T and natural killer cells and stimulates IFN-gamma production alone or in concert with other cytokines. Thus, on the basis of primary structure, receptor composition, and biologic activities, IL-21 is a new IL-2-family cytokine that participates in both innate and adaptive immunity and might be important for the development of a T(H)1 immune response.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-2 / immunology
  • Interleukin-2 / metabolism
  • Interleukins / classification
  • Interleukins / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Lymphokines / classification
  • Lymphokines / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Signal Transduction*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*


  • Interleukin-2
  • Interleukins
  • Lymphokines
  • interleukin-21