Intracellular trafficking and secretion of inflammatory cytokines

Cytokine Growth Factor Rev. 2013 Jun;24(3):227-39. doi: 10.1016/j.cytogfr.2013.04.001. Epub 2013 May 4.


The secretion of cytokines by immune cells plays a significant role in determining the course of an inflammatory response. The levels and timing of each cytokine released are critical for mounting an effective but confined response, whereas excessive or dysregulated inflammation contributes to many diseases. Cytokines are both culprits and targets for effective treatments in some diseases. The multiple points and mechanisms that have evolved for cellular control of cytokine secretion highlight the potency of these mediators and the fine tuning required to manage inflammation. Cytokine production in cells is regulated by cell signaling, and at mRNA and protein synthesis levels. Thereafter, the intracellular transport pathways and molecular trafficking machinery have intricate and essential roles in dictating the release and activity of cytokines. The trafficking machinery and secretory (exocytic) pathways are complex and highly regulated in many cells, involving specialized membranes, molecules and organelles that enable these cells to deliver cytokines to often-distinct areas of the cell surface, in a timely manner. This review provides an overview of secretory pathways - both conventional and unconventional - and key families of trafficking machinery. The prevailing knowledge about the trafficking and secretion of a number of individual cytokines is also summarized. In conclusion, we present emerging concepts about the functional plasticity of secretory pathways and their modulation for controlling cytokines and inflammation.

Keywords: Conventional secretion; Cytokine secretion; Granules; SNAREs; Unconventional secretion.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cytokines / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / physiopathology*
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism
  • Interleukins / metabolism
  • Protein Transport / physiology
  • SNARE Proteins / metabolism
  • Secretory Pathway / physiology*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism
  • rab GTP-Binding Proteins / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Interleukins
  • SNARE Proteins
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Interferon-gamma
  • rab GTP-Binding Proteins