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Diabetes. 2009 May;58(5):1144-55. doi: 10.2337/db08-0882. Epub 2009 Feb 10.

Interleukin-21 is required for the development of type 1 diabetes in NOD mice.

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  • 1Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.



Interleukin (IL)-21 is a type 1 cytokine that has been implicated in the pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes via the unique biology of the nonobese diabetic (NOD) mouse strain. The aim of this study was to investigate a causal role for IL-21 in type 1 diabetes.


We generated IL-21R-deficient NOD mice and C57Bl/6 mice expressing IL-21 in pancreatic beta-cells, allowing the determination of the role of insufficient and excessive IL-21 signaling in type 1 diabetes.


Deficiency in IL-21R expression renders NOD mice resistant to insulitis, production of insulin autoantibodies, and onset of type 1 diabetes. The lymphoid compartment in IL-21R-/- NOD is normal and does not contain an increased regulatory T-cell fraction or diminished effector cytokine responses. However, we observed a clear defect in autoreactive effector T-cells in IL-21R-/- NOD by transfer experiments. Conversely, overexpression of IL-21 in pancreatic beta-cells induced inflammatory cytokine and chemokines, including IL-17A, IL17F, IFN-gamma, monocyte chemoattractant protein (MCP)-1, MCP-2, and interferon-inducible protein-10 in the pancreas. The ensuing leukocytic infiltration in the islets resulted in destruction of beta-cells and spontaneous type 1 diabetes in the normally diabetes-resistant C57Bl/6 and NOD x C57Bl/6 backgrounds.


This work provides demonstration of the essential prodiabetogenic activities of IL-21 on diverse genetic backgrounds (NOD and C57BL/6) and indicates that IL-21 blockade could be a promising strategy for interventions in human type 1 diabetes.

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