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PLoS Comput Biol. 2015 Apr 29;11(4):e1004206. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004206. eCollection 2015 Apr.

Three-Dimensional Gradients of Cytokine Signaling between T Cells.

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Division of Theoretical Systems Biology, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany; Institute for Theoretical Biology, Charité-Universitätsmedizin, Berlin, Germany; Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California, United States of America.
Institute for Applied Mathematics, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.
Division of Theoretical Systems Biology, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany; Bioquant Center, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.


Immune responses are regulated by diffusible mediators, the cytokines, which act at sub-nanomolar concentrations. The spatial range of cytokine communication is a crucial, yet poorly understood, functional property. Both containment of cytokine action in narrow junctions between immune cells (immunological synapses) and global signaling throughout entire lymph nodes have been proposed, but the conditions under which they might occur are not clear. Here we analyze spatially three-dimensional reaction-diffusion models for the dynamics of cytokine signaling at two successive scales: in immunological synapses and in dense multicellular environments. For realistic parameter values, we observe local spatial gradients, with the cytokine concentration around secreting cells decaying sharply across only a few cell diameters. Focusing on the well-characterized T-cell cytokine interleukin-2, we show how cytokine secretion and competitive uptake determine this signaling range. Uptake is shaped locally by the geometry of the immunological synapse. However, even for narrow synapses, which favor intrasynaptic cytokine consumption, escape fluxes into the extrasynaptic space are expected to be substantial (≥20% of secretion). Hence paracrine signaling will generally extend beyond the synapse but can be limited to cellular microenvironments through uptake by target cells or strong competitors, such as regulatory T cells. By contrast, long-range cytokine signaling requires a high density of cytokine producers or weak consumption (e.g., by sparsely distributed target cells). Thus in a physiological setting, cytokine gradients between cells, and not bulk-phase concentrations, are crucial for cell-to-cell communication, emphasizing the need for spatially resolved data on cytokine signaling.

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