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What are Interleukins?

By Angela B.
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Interleukins are naturally occurring proteins produced by the body that help the body's immune system. They are not stored within the body’s cells but are secreted when stimulation, such as infection, presents itself. While dozens of interleukins and their effects have been identified, scientists believe there are many more still to be found. The different types of interleukins are responsible for triggering an assortment of infection-fighting immune responses, including pain, fever, inflammation, allergic reactions and cell regeneration.

As part of the cytokine family of cell-signaling molecules, interleukins have a major role in the immune system, but they don’t actively create the immune response. They serve instead as messengers, passing the word among cells — particularly white blood cells — to let them know their services are needed. The appropriate cells then go to work.

The role of interleukins within the immune system has led to their use in fighting some types of cancer and diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. While the body produces a relatively small amount of interleukins, scientists have figured out how to reproduce them in laboratories, making larger quantities readily available for medicinal purposes. When administered, these high-dose interleukins trigger healthy cells to redouble their efforts in fighting cancerous cells and other threats to the body. Biological therapy using interleukins also can help rebuild an immune system practically eliminated by the sometimes harsh treatments needed to destroy cancerous tumors.

Side effects of interleukin therapy can include very low blood pressure, swelling, chills, fever, nausea and vomiting. Bruising and bleeding also can occur more easily. Side effects are usually short-lived and rarely linger once treatment ends, though the severity of the side effects can lead some patients to require hospitalization during treatment.

While interleukin therapy that boosts the immune system into overdrive can have major health benefits in some situations, an overactive immune system is believed to be the culprit behind autoimmune diseases including lupus, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. Such diseases are believed to be caused by a breakdown in communication. Another part of the body’s immune system makeup — T suppressor cells — are meant to signal an end to fighting once the body has won, and interleukins are critical to getting the word out. Problems may arise, however, when the appropriate cells don’t get the interleukins’ message to stop fighting, chose to ignore the message to stop or receive a message to keep fighting because malfunctioning T cells incorrectly believe that some infection remains.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Nov 06, 2011

@irontoenail - The problem with tinkering with the immune system is always going to be triggering an overreaction. It's such a delicate system, and it already goes horribly wrong every day with some people, just from a natural allergy to something that should be harmless, like, for example, peanuts.

As it says in the article, adding too many extras to the immune system can lead to it becoming a massive problem, as with auto-immune diseases, and there are some quite horrible symptoms that can come from that.

Plus I'm not sure with cancer that they would be able to easily pinpoint where the immune system should be attacking the cells, which could lead to other problems as well.

By irontoenail — On Nov 06, 2011

This sounds like a much better treatment for things like cancer than the radiation therapy and chemo therapy options that they have at the moment.

If they could come up with even more biological therapy solutions, I think that would really be ideal.

Particularly as, like it says in the article, most of these options would revolve around making the immune system more sturdy and that's something that you want to be doing with people suffering from cancer and similar illnesses anyway.

At the moment, it must not be as effective as the other treatments or they would use it exclusively I suppose.

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