Increased blood levels of type I interferon (IFN-I) and expression of a broad signature of gene transcripts that reflect induction by IFN-I are observed in many patients with systemic autoimmune diseases, and that pattern is most striking in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Persistent production of IFN-α, the most abundant subtype measured in these patients, is an important feature of the immunopathogenesis of lupus and has stimulated current efforts to develop and test therapeutics that either block IFN-I or its receptor directly or target components of the IFN-I pathway involved in induction of or response to IFN-I. In this review data from animal models of chronic viral infection, examples of lupus-like syndromes associated with single-gene mutations that impact the IFN-I pathway, and longitudinal studies of patients with lupus are described and support the rationale for therapeutic targeting of the IFN-I pathway. However, the complexity of IFN-I regulation and the diversity of its effects on immune system function suggest that the definitive demonstration of that pathway as a valid and productive therapeutic target will only come from clinical trials of agents tested in patients with systemic autoimmune disease, with patients with lupus likely to be the most informative.
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