Potential mechanisms of interferon-alpha induced autoimmunity

Autoimmunity. 2003 Dec;36(8):519-23. doi: 10.1080/08916930310001602137.


The type I interferons (IFN) are cytokines encoded by a multigene family comprising 13 closely related IFN-A genes, and a single IFN-B gene. These factors are rapidly induced upon viral infection, and have pleiotropic effects. Historically, the induction of a cell-autonomous state of antiviral resistance, the inhibition of cell growth, and the regulation of apoptosis were appreciated first. More recently, it became generally accepted that they can regulate immune effector functions. This latter feature led them to be reconsidered as signals linking innate and adaptive immunity, and potentially orchestrating autoimmunity associated with viral infection and IFN-alpha therapy. Common to almost all autoimmune diseases is their polygenic inheritance, incomplete penetrance, and evidence for the role of environmental factors, particularly viral infection. In addition, they are characterized by increased numbers of circulating autoreactive T- and B-cells. Endogenously produced or therapeutically applied IFN-alpha can tilt the usually tightly controlled balance towards activation of these autoreactive cells via a vast array of mechanisms. The genetic susceptibility factors determine which type of autoimmunity will develop. IFN-alpha induces numerous target genes in antigen presenting cells (APC), such that APC are stimulated and enhance humoral autoimmunity, promote isotype switching, and potently activate autoreactive T cells. Moreover, IFN-alpha can synergistically amplify T cell autoreactivity by directly promoting T cell activation and keeping activated T cells alive. In essence, type I IFNs may constitute one example of genes that have been conserved because they confer dominant disease resistance, but at the same time they can trigger autoimmunity in genetically susceptible individuals.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Autoimmune Diseases / etiology*
  • Autoimmunity*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Interferon-alpha / adverse effects
  • Interferon-alpha / immunology*
  • Superantigens / immunology


  • Interferon-alpha
  • Superantigens