Activin-A is a pleiotropic cytokine that belongs to the TGF-β superfamily and plays an important role in fundamental biological processes, such as development and tissue repair. Growing evidence proposes a crucial role for activin-A in immune-mediated responses and associated diseases, with both enhancing and suppressive effects depending on the cell type, the cytokine micromilieu and the context of the response. Several recent studies have demonstrated a striking increase in activin-A expression in experimental models of asthma, as well as, in the asthmatic airway in humans. Importantly, a strong immunoregulatory role for activin-A in allergic airway disease, with suppression of T helper (Th) type 2 cell-driven allergic responses and protection against the development of cardinal features of the asthmatic phenotype was revealed by in vivo functional studies. Activin-A-mediated immunosuppression is associated with induction of functional allergen-specific regulatory T cells. In human asthma, although activin-A levels are increased in the airway epithelium and submucosal cells, the expression of its signalling components is markedly decreased, pointing to decreased regulation. Nevertheless, a rapid activation of the activin-A signalling pathway is observed in the airway of individuals with asthma following inhalational allergen challenge, suggestive of an inherent protective mechanism to control disease. In support, in vitro studies using human airway epithelial cells have demonstrated that endogenous activin-A suppresses the release of inflammatory mediators, while it induces epithelial repair. Collectively, compelling evidence suggests that activin-A orchestrates the regulation of key events involved in the pathogenesis of allergic asthma. The critical role of activin-A in allergic airway responses places this cytokine as an exciting new therapeutic target for asthma.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.