What are Interleukins?

Interleukins (ILs) are a group of proteins that were initially thought to be expressed exclusively by leucocytes but were later found to be expressed by many cell types. They belong to the class of cytokines. Cytokines are a group of small proteins (5-10 kDA) essential in cell communication and interaction. ILs proteins have been found to play an important role in mediating and controlling the activation of different immune cells. Interleukins are essential for the proliferation, maturation, adhesion, and migration of immune cells. Interleukin depletion has been linked to immune deficiency and autoimmune disease. This subgroup of cytokine proteins expresses both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory properties. Interleukin 1 (IL-1), Interleukin 6 (IL-6), and Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha (TNF-α) are some of the key pro-inflammatory interleukins. They are essential in mediating the immune response.

Like other types of cytokines, interleukins have both paracrine and autocrine functions. Autocrine action means that the interleukins will bind to the receptor on the membrane of the same cell that secreted it. Paracrine action means that the interleukin protein will bind to the cells in close proximity to the cell that secreted the interleukin.

ILs proteins are divided into four major groups based on the structural features. However, their amino sequence similarity (15-25%) is small. These proteins are synthetized mainly by helper CD4 T lymphocytes, macrophages, monocytes and endothelial cells. Once produced, they play a key role in the differentiation of lymphocytes as well as hematopoietic cells.

General features of Interleukins

  • The production of interleukin proteins is a self-limited process. The messenger RNA that encoded is unstable and causes a transient synthesis. As a result, ILs are secreted once they have been synthetized.
  • ILs protein response consists of up- and down- regulation of regulatory mechanisms. The response is controlled thanks to the participation of genes that inhibit the expression of interleukin receptors.
  • Same interleukin proteins may have similar functions. For example, IL-4, IL-5, and IL-13 all act as B-cell growth factors and cane stimulate B-cell differentiation.
  • The actions of one interleukin can stimulate the actions of another interleukin. For example, IL-2 is released following the activation of lymphocytes by IL-1.

Applications of Interleukins

Interleukins are used to investigate different aspects of clinical medicine. For example, IL-37 has been linked to higher disease activity in lupus patients. IL-2 suppression has been linked to T cell-mediated autoimmunity. Interferon-gamma and IL-2 have been used in the immunotherapy for melanoma and renal carcinoma.

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