The use of cytokines from the IL-2 family (also called the common γ chain cytokine family) such as interleukin (IL)-2, IL-7, IL-15, and IL-21 to activate the immune system of cancer patients is one of the most important areas of current cancer immunotherapy research. The infusion of IL-2 at low or high doses for multiple cycles in patients with metastatic melanoma and renal cell carcinoma was the first successful immunotherapy for cancer proving that the immune system could completely eradicate tumor cells under certain conditions. The initial clinical success observed in some IL-2-treated patients encouraged further efforts focused on developing and improving the application of other IL-2 family cytokines (IL-4, IL-7, IL-9, IL-15, and IL-21) that have unique biological effects playing important roles in the development, proliferation, and function of specific subsets of lymphocytes at different stages of differentiation with some overlapping effects with IL-2. IL-7, IL-15, and IL-21, as well as mutant forms or variants of IL-2, are now also being actively pursued in the clinic with some measured early successes. In this review, we summarize the current knowledge on the biology of the IL-2 cytokine family focusing on IL-2, IL-15 and IL-21. We discuss the similarities and differences between the signaling pathways mediated by these cytokines and their immunomodulatory effects on different subsets of immune cells. Current clinical application of IL-2, IL-15 and IL-21 either as single agents or in combination with other biological agents and the limitation and potential drawbacks of these cytokines for cancer immunotherapy are also described. Lastly, we discuss the future direction of research on these cytokines, such as the development of new cytokine mutants and variants for improving cytokine-based immunotherapy through differential binding to specific receptor subunits.
Keywords: Cancer; Cytokine; IL-15; IL-2; IL-21; Immunotherapy; Lymphocyte; NK cell; T-cell.
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