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Blood Rev. 1991 Sep;5(3):193-203.

The cytokine receptor superfamily.

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Department of Haematological Medicine, King's College School of Medicine and Dentistry, London, UK.


The binding of haemopoietic growth factors and cytokines to specific receptors triggers a cascade of intracellular events which results in cell proliferation and differentiation. The knowledge of ligand-receptor-signal pathways is not only important in understanding the pathophysiology of malignant disease but also essential for devising future therapeutic strategies. The advent of recombinant technology has made it possible to test the efficacy of selective differentiation therapy, and haemopoietic growth factors are undergoing clinical trials for a number of indications. In addition, increasingly the receptors for haemopoietic growth factors and cytokines have come under scientific scrutiny. Recently receptors for IL-2 alpha, IL-2 beta, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, IL-7, erythropoietin, G-CSF and GM-CSF have been isolated and cloned. It has become apparent that they have structural homology that is shared by receptors for growth hormone and prolactin, and this receptor group makes up the new cytokine receptor superfamily. The finding of sequence homology within these receptors suggests their evolutionary relationship. These receptors are transmembrane proteins 257-856 amino acids and their extracellular ligand-binding domain contains four conserved cysteine residues and a Trp-Ser-X-Trp-Ser motif. The secondary structure of the extracellular domain is made up of alpha-helices. High and low affinity binding forms exist for all these receptors. Binding affinity may depend on the formation of receptor heterodimers or multimers, association with other membrane proteins or differential glycosylation. Soluble receptor forms have been described for IL-2 alpha, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6 and IL-7. It is not known whether they are actively secreted or represent the degradation products of cell turnover. Their function may be to mop up excess cytokines and thereby confine the cytokine response. There is no sequence homology of the intracytoplasmic domains although several are rich in proline and serine residues, which may be important in mechanisms of signal transduction. No receptor in this superfamily functions as a receptor tyrosine kinase or has intrinsic protein tyrosine kinase activity. Detailed study of individual receptors holds clues to the regulation of receptor expression, ligand-receptor interactions and mechanisms involved in signal transduction. Such knowledge might explain the pleotropic effects cytokines may have on different cell types and their overlap in biological functions. Elevated levels of soluble IL-2 alpha receptor (Tac) are detected in hairy cell leukaemia, lymphomas and adult T-cell leukaemia (TL), and levels reflect tumour burden.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS).

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