Letter | Published:

IL-21 initiates an alternative pathway to induce proinflammatory TH17 cells

Nature volume 448, pages 484487 (26 July 2007) | Download Citation



On activation, naive T cells differentiate into effector T-cell subsets with specific cytokine phenotypes and specialized effector functions1. Recently a subset of T cells, distinct from T helper (TH)1 and TH2 cells, producing interleukin (IL)-17 (TH17) was defined and seems to have a crucial role in mediating autoimmunity and inducing tissue inflammation2,3,4,5. We and others have shown that transforming growth factor (TGF)-β and IL-6 together induce the differentiation of TH17 cells, in which IL-6 has a pivotal function in dictating whether T cells differentiate into Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Treg cells) or TH17 cells6,7,8,9. Whereas TGF-β induces Foxp3 and generates Treg cells, IL-6 inhibits the generation of Treg cells and induces the production of IL-17, suggesting a reciprocal developmental pathway for TH17 and Treg cells. Here we show that IL-6-deficient (Il6-/-) mice do not develop a TH17 response and their peripheral repertoire is dominated by Foxp3+ Treg cells. However, deletion of Treg cells leads to the reappearance of TH17 cells in Il6-/- mice, suggesting an additional pathway by which TH17 cells might be generated in vivo. We show that an IL-2 cytokine family member, IL-21, cooperates with TGF-β to induce TH17 cells in naive Il6-/- T cells and that IL-21-receptor-deficient T cells are defective in generating a TH17 response.

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We thank M. Collins for providing Il21r-/- mice, and D. Kozoriz, S. Tente, R. Chandwaskar and D. Lee for cell sorting and technical assistance. This work was supported by grants from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Institutes of Health, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Center for Immunological Tolerance at Harvard, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. V.K.K. is the recipient of the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health.

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Author notes

    • Thomas Korn
    • , Estelle Bettelli
    •  & Wenda Gao

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Center for Neurologic Diseases, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA

    • Thomas Korn
    • , Estelle Bettelli
    • , Anneli Jäger
    •  & Vijay K. Kuchroo
  2. Transplant Research Center, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA

    • Wenda Gao
    •  & Terry B. Strom
  3. Center for Neurologic Diseases, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, 65 Landsdowne Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Amit Awasthi
    •  & Mohamed Oukka


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Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Mohamed Oukka or Vijay K. Kuchroo.

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