Context Is Key: Delineating the Unique Functions of IFNα and IFNβ in Disease

Front Immunol. 2020 Dec 21:11:606874. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2020.606874. eCollection 2020.


Type I interferons (IFNs) are critical effector cytokines of the immune system and were originally known for their important role in protecting against viral infections; however, they have more recently been shown to play protective or detrimental roles in many disease states. Type I IFNs consist of IFNα, IFNβ, IFNϵ, IFNκ, IFNω, and a few others, and they all signal through a shared receptor to exert a wide range of biological activities, including antiviral, antiproliferative, proapoptotic, and immunomodulatory effects. Though the individual type I IFN subtypes possess overlapping functions, there is growing appreciation that they also have unique properties. In this review, we summarize some of the mechanisms underlying differential expression of and signaling by type I IFNs, and we discuss examples of differential functions of IFNα and IFNβ in models of infectious disease, cancer, and autoimmunity.

Keywords: IFNα subtypes; IFNβ; autoimmunity; cancer; infection; type I interferons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / metabolism*
  • Autoimmunity
  • Communicable Diseases / immunology
  • Communicable Diseases / metabolism*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Humans
  • Interferon-alpha / metabolism*
  • Interferon-beta / metabolism*
  • Ligands
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Interferon / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Interferon-alpha
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Interferon
  • Interferon-beta