National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

For Immediate Release 
Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Contact: Trish Reynolds
(301) 496-8190


Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have redefined the roles of several cytokines involved in the generation of immune cells implicated in severe autoimmune diseases. The study in mice showed that development of Th17 immune cells can occur without the presence of transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta, a mediator thought to be required for Th17 cell development. The study demonstrates that the interaction of three inflammatory cytokines (proteins that influence the behavior of cells) – interleukin-6 (IL-6), IL-1-beta and IL-23 – is responsible for the creation of Th17 cells that are more active in promoting autoimmunity than Th17 cells generated with IL-6, IL-1-beta and TGF-beta. These findings reemphasize the separate roles of IL-23 and TGF-beta in immunity and autoimmunity, and open up possibilities for the development of new therapies. The study appears in the current issue of the journal Nature.

The immune systems of mice and humans mainly consist of B cells and T cells. While B cells fight infections and can induce autoimmunity by producing antibodies that directly target foreign antigens or a person’s own tissue, T cells are involved in overall cell-mediated immunity. Importantly, how a T helper (Th) cell differentiates (develops from an immature, unspecialized cell into a mature, specialized cell) determines how it mediates immune responses. Th17 cells produce IL-17, a powerful inflammatory cytokine, and have been implicated in multiple autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis. The established belief has been that Th17 cells initially differentiate in response to activation by IL-6 and TGF-beta. However, previous research has shown that TGF-beta is primarily associated with suppressing immune functions and promoting regulatory T cells (Treg), which can produce inhibitory cytokines that dampen inflammatory immune responses.

In the present study, the NIH scientists first looked at the conditions to differentiate Th17 cells from naïve T cells outside of the mouse (in vitro) and tried several different cocktails of cytokines to see which combinations would promote Th17 development. They found two combinations that efficiently induced Th17 differentiation. As previously described, IL-6, IL-1-beta, and TGF-beta-1 together created Th17 cells. Surprisingly, IL-6, IL-1-beta, and IL-23 without TGF-beta also created Th17 cells. Most interestingly, the action of Th17 cells generated with IL-23, designated Th17(23), was different from the action of Th17 cells generated with TGF-beta (Th17(beta)). The researchers compared transcription factors, receptors and mediators of the two Th17 subtypes and looked at the pathogenic activity of both Th17 subtypes in mice during experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a common model of autoimmunity that mimics some aspects of multiple sclerosis. They found that Th17(23) cells provoked significantly more severe disease than did Th17(beta) cells.

These findings suggest a new model for Th17 generation and the existence of functionally different subtypes of Th17 cells. This study also provides a better understanding of the array of immune components involved in autoimmunity and suggests possibilities for new targeted therapies.

NIH scientists contributing to this study are affiliated with the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Additional support was provided by Merck Research Laboratories (Schering-Plough Biopharma), Palo Alto, Calif.


Ghoreschi K, Laurence A, Yang XP, Tato CM, McGeachy MJ, Konkel J, Ramos HL, Wei L, Davidson T, Bouladoux N, Grainger J, Chen Q, Kanno Y, Watford WT, Sun HW, Eberl G, Shevach E, Belkaid Y, Cua DJ, Chen W, O’Shea JJ. Enhanced Pathogenicity of Th17 cells Generated in the Absence of Transforming Growth Factor-ß Signaling. Nature. 2010 October 21;467(7318): 967-971.


John J. O’Shea, M.D. Scientific Director, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, is available to comment on this article.


To schedule interviews, please contact Trish Reynolds, 301-496-8190,

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The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health, is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. For more information about NIAMS, call the information clearinghouse at (301) 495-4484 or (877) 22-NIAMS (free call) or visit the NIAMS Web site at

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