Interleukin-6 (IL-6) plays an important role in the development and progression of inflammatory responses, autoimmune diseases, and cancers. Many viral infections, including Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV), result in the vigorous production of IL-6. However, the role of IL-6 in the development of virus-induced inflammatory responses is unclear. The infection of susceptible mice with TMEV induces the development of chronic demyelinating disease, which is considered a relevant infectious model for multiple sclerosis. In this study, we demonstrate that resistant C57BL/6 mice carrying an IL-6 transgene (IL-6 Tg) develop a TMEV-induced demyelinating disease accompanied by an increase in viral persistence and an elevated Th17 cell response in the central nervous system. Either IL-6 or IL-17 induced the expression of Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL at a high concentration. The upregulated expression of prosurvival molecules in turn inhibited target cell destruction by virus-specific CD8(+) T cells. More interestingly, IL-6 and IL-17 synergistically promoted the expression of these prosurvival molecules, preventing cellular apoptosis at a much lower (<5-fold) concentration. The signals involved in the synergy appear to include the activation of both STAT3 and NF-κB via distinct cytokine-dependent pathways. Thus, the excessive IL-6 promotes the generation of Th17 cells, and the resulting IL-6 and IL-17 synergistically promote viral persistence by protecting virus-infected cells from apoptosis and CD8(+) T cell-mediated target destruction. These results suggest that blocking both IL-6 and IL-17 functions are important considerations for therapies of chronic viral diseases, autoimmune diseases, and cancers.
Importance: This study indicates that an excessive level of IL-6 cytokine produced following viral infection promotes the development of IL-17-producing pathogenic helper T cells. We demonstrate here for the first time that IL-6 together with IL-17 synergistically enhances the expression of survival molecules to hinder critical host defense mechanisms removing virus-infected cells. This finding has an important implication in controlling not only chronic viral infections but also autoimmune diseases and cancers, which are associated with prolonged cell survival.
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