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Cancer Res. 2003 Dec 15;63(24):9016-22.

In vivo antitumor activity of interleukin 21 mediated by natural killer cells.

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  • 1Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.


Immunotherapy with high-dose interleukin (IL) 2 has been shown to successfully treat tumors in animal models and cause dramatic tumor regressions in some patients with metastatic melanoma, renal cell carcinoma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. However, toxicity associated with IL-2 administration has compromised its widespread use in the clinic. IL-21 is a more recently discovered cytokine produced by activated CD4(+) T cells that shares significant sequence homology to IL-2, IL-4, and IL-15. Because IL-21 and IL-2 and their receptors share significant sequence similarities and both cytokines can stimulate T and natural killer (NK) cells, we sought to study whether IL-21, like IL-2, exhibits antitumor effects in vivo. In this study, we treated established s.c. tumor in mice by systemically administering plasmid DNA encoding murine IL-21 using a hydrodynamics-based gene delivery technique. Administration of IL-21 plasmid DNA resulted in high levels of circulating IL-21 in vivo. Treatment of tumor-bearing mice with IL-21 plasmid DNA significantly inhibited the growth of B16 melanoma and MCA205 fibrosarcoma in a dose-dependent manner without significant toxicity and increased the survival rate, compared with mice treated with control plasmid DNA. In vivo depletion of either CD4(+) or CD8(+) T cells did not affect IL-21-mediated antitumor activity. However, depletion of NK cells completely abolished IL-21-induced tumor inhibition. Consistent with this, the antitumor activity of IL-21 seemed to be mediated through enhanced cytolytic activity of NK cells. Our study suggests that IL-21 has significant antitumor activity and may have therapeutic potentials as an antitumor agent in the clinic.

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