Identification of a γc Receptor Antagonist That Prevents Reprogramming of Human Tissue-resident Cytotoxic T Cells by IL15 and IL21

Gastroenterology. 2020 Feb;158(3):625-637.e13. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2019.10.006. Epub 2019 Oct 14.


Background & aims: Gamma chain (γc) cytokines (interleukin [IL]2, IL4, IL7, IL9, IL15, and IL21) signal via a common γc receptor. IL2 regulates the immune response, whereas IL21 and IL15 contribute to development of autoimmune disorders, including celiac disease. We investigated whether BNZ-2, a peptide designed to inhibit IL15 and IL21, blocks these cytokines selectively and its effects on intraepithelial cytotoxic T cells.

Methods: We obtained duodenal biopsies from 9 patients with potential celiac disease (positive results from tests for anti-TG2 but no villous atrophy), 30 patients with untreated celiac disease (with villous atrophy), and 5 patients with treated celiac disease (on a gluten-free diet), as well as 43 individuals without celiac disease (controls). We stimulated primary intestinal intraepithelial CD8+ T-cell lines, or CD8+ T cells directly isolated from intestinal biopsies, with γc cytokines in presence or absence of BNZ-2. Cells were analyzed by immunoblots, flow cytometry, or RNA-sequencing analysis for phosphorylation of signaling molecules, gene expression profiles, proliferation, and levels of granzyme B.

Results: Duodenal tissues from patients with untreated celiac disease had increased levels of messenger RNAs encoding IL15 receptor subunit alpha (IL15RA) and IL21 compared with tissues from patients with potential celiac disease and controls. Activation of intraepithelial cytotoxic T cells with IL15 or IL21 induced separate signaling pathways; incubation of the cells with IL15 and IL21 cooperatively increased their transcriptional activity, proliferation, and cytolytic properties. BNZ-2 specifically inhibited the effects of IL15 and IL21, but not of other γc cytokines.

Conclusions: We found increased expression of IL15RA and IL21 in duodenal tissues from patients with untreated celiac disease compared with controls. IL15 and IL21 cooperatively activated intestinal intraepithelial cytotoxic T cells. In particular, they increased their transcriptional activity, proliferation, and cytolytic activity. The peptide BNZ-2 blocked these effects, but not those of other γc cytokines, including IL2. BNZ-2 might be used to prevent cytotoxic T-cell-mediated tissue damage in complex immune disorders exhibiting upregulation of IL15 and IL21.

Keywords: Autoimmunity; Immune Response; Signal Transduction; Treatment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Benzodiazepines / pharmacology*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / drug effects*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / physiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Celiac Disease / immunology
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cellular Reprogramming / drug effects
  • Duodenum / pathology
  • Humans
  • Interleukin Receptor Common gamma Subunit / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Interleukin-15 / genetics
  • Interleukin-15 / pharmacology*
  • Interleukins / genetics
  • Interleukins / pharmacology*
  • Primary Cell Culture
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Interleukin-15 / genetics
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Transcription, Genetic / drug effects


  • 4-cyclohexylmethyl-1-methyl-3,4-dihydro-1H-1,4-benzodiazepine-2,5-dione
  • IL15 protein, human
  • IL15RA protein, human
  • Interleukin Receptor Common gamma Subunit
  • Interleukin-15
  • Interleukins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Interleukin-15
  • Benzodiazepines
  • interleukin-21