Low-dose Interleukin-2 in the Treatment of Autoimmune Disease

Oncology & Hematology Review, 2014;10(2):157–63


CD4+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) act to maintain peripheral immune tolerance. Decreased numbers or defective function of Tregs has been implicated in the pathogenesis of various autoimmune diseases. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) at high doses is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an immune stimulant to induce anti-tumor cytotoxicity. However, at physiologic doses, IL-2 is necessary for the expansion and function of Tregs. Treatment with low-dose IL-2 can selectively enhance Treg function while avoiding the activation of effector T cells and ameliorate immune inflammation. Administration of low doses of IL-2 to patients suffering from chronic graft versus host disease (cGvHD) or chronic hepatitis C-mediated vasculitis resulted in significant clinical benefit, which was linked to improved Treg cell function. Preclinical studies suggest that low-dose IL-2 may offer benefit in other autoimmune diseases including systemic lupus erythematosus and type 1 diabetes. Ongoing preclinical and clinical studies indicate a wider potential role for low-dose IL-2 based Treg therapeutics in human autoimmune diseases.

Keywords: Autoimmune disease, interleukin-2, systemic lupus erythematosus, graft versus host disease, vasculitis, type-1 diabetes
Disclosure: John Koreth, MBBS, DPhil, has received research funding from Prometheus. Jerome Ritz, MD, has received research funding from Prometheus. Michelle Rosenzwajg, MD, PhD, is an inventor of a patent application claiming low-dose interleukin-2 (IL-2) in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, owned by her academic institutions and licensed to ILTOO Pharma in which she holds shares. David Klatzmann, MD, PhD, is an inventor of a patent application claiming low-dose IL-2 in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, owned by his academic institutions and licensed to ILTOO Pharma in which he holds shares. George C Tsokos, MD, Alberto Pugliese, MD, and Thomas R Malek, PhD, have no conflicts of interest to declare.
Acknowledgments: Editorial assistance was provided by Katrina Mountfort, PhD, at Touch Medical Media, London, UK and funded by Prometheus.
Received: October 22, 2014 Accepted November 06, 2014 Citation Oncology & Hematology Review, 2014;10(2):157–63
Correspondence: John Koreth, MBBS, DPhil, D2029 Dana Faber Cancer Institute, 450 Brookline Ave, Boston, MA 02215, US (E: john_koreth@dfci.harvard.edu). George C Tsokos, MD, 330 Brookline Avenue, CLS 937, Boston, MA 02115, US (E: gtsokos@bidmc.harvard.edu).
Support: The publication of this article was supported by Prometheus. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Prometheus.

Autoimmune diseases comprise more than 80 chronic conditions that collectively affect approximately 5 to 8 % of the US population and are a leading cause of death in young and middle-aged women.1 Moreover, the incidence and prevalence of autoimmune diseases are rising. The age of onset of autoimmune diseases varies widely but many start during childhood2 and, being chronic and debilitating in nature, require long-term therapy and invoke considerable medical costs, long-term impaired quality of life, and constitute a significant burden to families and society. Type 1 diabetes (T1D), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) account for the majority of the patients with autoimmune diseases. Understanding the dysregulated immune response underlying autoimmune diseases will help the development of disease-specific therapeutics. In this short review we will present an overview of the pathophysiology of autoimmune diseases in the context of regulatory T cell (Treg) dysfunction with a focus on the emerging role for interleukin-2 (IL-2) based Treg therapeutics in restoring immune regulation and mitigating organ damage.

Pathophysiology of Autoimmune Disease— The Role of Tregs
Autoimmune diseases are characterized by a breakdown of mechanisms that allow the immune system to distinguish between self and nonself and maintain immunologic self-tolerance. Organ damage and the ensuing clinical manifestations may result from the action of autoantibodies, self-reactive effector T cell (Teff) responses, secreted cytokines, or other elements that participate in the autoimmune response.3 In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the role of Tregs, which are important in the maintenance of peripheral immune tolerance.4 Tregs can suppress immunemediated inflammation through a number of complementary mechanisms that may involve cell–cell contact and the release of regulatory cytokines that directly limit the responses of effector immune cells.

Several subtypes of Tregs exist, the most well studied being CD4+ cells that express high-level CD25 and the transcription factor forkhead box P3 (FOXP3), which is a critical determinant of Treg cell phenotype and function. Treg deficiency or dysfunction is associated with autoimmune disease. For example, in experimental animal studies, genetic or pharmacologic depletion of Tregs causes autoimmunity.5,6

Mutations of the FOXP3 gene in humans result in impaired Treg function and are associated with the ‘immunodysregulation polyendocrinopathy enteropathy X-linked’ (IPEX) syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by fulminant multi-organ autoimmunity.7 In clinical studies, decreased levels of circulating CD25+CD4+ T cells have been reported in patients with autoimmune disease, including vasculitis, rheumatic disease, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and Kawasaki disease,8–12 and are associated with high disease activity or poor prognosis.8,10,12 Graft versus host disease (GvHD), which is a manifestation of allo-immunity following hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), has also been associated with Treg cell deficiency.

These data have led to the hypothesis that augmentation of Tregs may be a useful therapeutic strategy in autoimmune disease. Treg augmentation has resulted in clinical improvements in numerous animal models of autoimmune diseases.13 Furthermore, the administration of in vitro expanded CD4+CD25highCD127-Tregs has been found to be safe and may help to preserve β-cell function in children with T1D.14,15 Targeting Treg cell enhancement at the cellular and molecular levels may therefore be an attractive therapeutic strategy. Cytokines that can modulate and boost Treg-mediated suppression of immune responses may play an important role in the control of autoimmunity. This article will focus on the ability of IL-2 to augment the numbers and function of CD4+ Tregs.

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Keywords: Autoimmune disease, interleukin-2, systemic lupus erythematosus, graft versus host disease, vasculitis, type-1 diabetes