The two faces of IL-6 in the tumor microenvironment

Semin Immunol. 2014 Feb;26(1):38-47. doi: 10.1016/j.smim.2014.01.008. Epub 2014 Mar 3.


Within the tumor microenvironment, IL-6 signaling is generally considered a malevolent player, assuming a dark visage that promotes tumor progression. Chronic IL-6 signaling is linked to tumorigenesis in numerous mouse models as well as in human disease. IL-6 acts intrinsically on tumor cells through numerous downstream mediators to support cancer cell proliferation, survival, and metastatic dissemination. Moreover, IL-6 can act extrinsically on other cells within the complex tumor microenvironment to sustain a pro-tumor milieu by supporting angiogenesis and tumor evasion of immune surveillance. A lesser known role for IL-6 signaling has recently emerged in which it plays a beneficial role, presenting a fairer face that opposes tumor growth by mobilizing anti-tumor T cell immune responses to attain tumor control. Accumulating evidence establishes IL-6 as a key player in the activation, proliferation and survival of lymphocytes during active immune responses. IL-6 signaling can also resculpt the T cell immune response, shifting it from a suppressive to a responsive state that can effectively act against tumors. Finally, IL-6 plays an indispensable role in boosting T cell trafficking to lymph nodes and to tumor sites, where they have the opportunity to become activated and execute their cytotoxic effector functions, respectively. Here, we discuss the dual faces of IL-6 signaling in the tumor microenvironment; the dark face that drives malignancy, and the fairer aspect that promotes anti-tumor adaptive immunity.

Keywords: Adaptive tumor immunity; IL-6 trans-signaling; T cell trafficking; Tumorigenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptive Immunity
  • Animals
  • Cell Movement / genetics
  • Cell Movement / immunology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / immunology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism
  • Cellular Microenvironment / genetics
  • Cellular Microenvironment / immunology
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-6 / genetics
  • Interleukin-6 / metabolism*
  • Lymph Nodes / immunology
  • Lymph Nodes / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • Tumor Microenvironment* / genetics
  • Tumor Microenvironment* / immunology


  • Interleukin-6