The activins are members of the transforming growth factor β superfamily with broad and complex effects on cell growth and differentiation. Activin A has long been known to be a critical regulator of inflammation and immunity, and similar roles are now emerging for activin B, with which it shares 65% sequence homology. These molecules and their binding protein, follistatin, are widely expressed, and their production is increased in many acute and chronic inflammatory conditions. Synthesis and release of the activins are stimulated by inflammatory cytokines, Toll-like receptor ligands, and oxidative stress. The activins interact with heterodimeric serine/threonine kinase receptor complexes to activate SMAD transcription factors and the MAP kinase signaling pathways, which mediate inflammation, stress, and immunity. Follistatin binds to the activins with high affinity, thereby obstructing the activin receptor binding site, and targets them to cell surface proteoglycans and lysosomal degradation. Studies on transgenic mice and those with gene knockouts, together with blocking studies using exogenous follistatin, have established that activin A plays critical roles in the onset of cachexia, acute and chronic inflammatory responses such as septicemia, colitis and asthma, and fibrosis. However, activin A also directs the development of monocyte/macrophages, myeloid dendritic cells, and T cell subsets to promote type 2 and regulatory immune responses. The ability of both endogenous and exogenous follistatin to block the proinflammatory and profibrotic actions of activin A has led to interest in this binding protein as a potential therapeutic for limiting the severity of disease and to improve subsequent damage associated with inflammation and fibrosis. However, the ability of activin A to sculpt the subsequent immune response as well means that the full range of effects that might arise from blocking activin bioactivity will need to be considered in any therapeutic applications.
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