Get access

Interleukin-21 triggers both cellular and humoral immune responses leading to therapeutic antitumor effects against head and neck squamous cell carcinoma




Interleukin-21 (IL-21) plays important roles in the regulation of T, B, and natural killer (NK) cells. We hypothesized that the cytokine may provide a novel immunotherapy strategy for cancer by stimulating both Th1 and Th2 immune responses. In this context, antitumor immunity induced by IL-21 was examined in mice bearing subcutaneous head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC).


A plasmid vector encoding murine IL-21 was injected intravenously into mice with pre-established HNSCC tumors, either alone or in combination with a vector construct expressing IL-15. Cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) and NK killing activities were evaluated by chrome release assays, while HNSCC-specific antibody was examined by flow cytometry and ELISA.


Significant antitumor effects were obtained by repeated transfection with either the IL-21 or the IL-15 gene. Co-administration of both cytokine genes resulted in increased suppression of tumor growth, significantly prolonging the survival periods of the animals. Thirty percent of the tumor-bearing mice that received the combination therapy survived for more than 300 days, completely rejecting rechallenge with the tumor at a distant site. IL-21 induced significant elevation of HNSCC-specific CTL activity, while IL-21 and IL-15 augmented NK activity in an additive manner. IL-21 gene transfer also promoted the production of tumor-specific IgG.


In vivo transduction of the IL-21 gene elicits powerful antitumor immunity, including both humoral and cellular arms of the immune response, and results in significant suppression of pre-established HNSCC. Co-transfer of the IL-15 gene further improved the therapeutic outcome, mainly by augmenting NK tumoricidal activity. The biological effects of IL-21 may be in sharp contrast to those of conventional Th1 and Th2 cytokines, suggesting intriguing implications of this cytokine for the classical concept of Th1 vs. Th2 paradigm. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.