Interleukin 2

Interleukin-2 (IL-2) is an interleukin, a type of cytokine signaling molecule in the immune system. It is a 15.5 - 16 kDa protein[5] that regulates the activities of white blood cells (leukocytes, often lymphocytes) that are responsible for immunity. IL-2 is part of the body's natural response to microbial infection, and in discriminating between foreign ("non-self") and "self". IL-2 mediates its effects by binding to IL-2 receptors, which are expressed by lymphocytes. The major sources of IL-2 are activated CD4+ T cells and activated CD8+ T cells.[6]

Available structures
PDBOrtholog search: PDBe RCSB
AliasesIL2, IL-2, TCGF, lymphokine, interleukin 2
External IDsOMIM: 147680 MGI: 96548 HomoloGene: 488 GeneCards: IL2
Gene location (Human)
Chr.Chromosome 4 (human)[1]
Band4q27Start122,451,470 bp[1]
End122,456,725 bp[1]
RNA expression pattern
More reference expression data









RefSeq (mRNA)



RefSeq (protein)



Location (UCSC)Chr 4: 122.45 – 122.46 MbChr 3: 37.12 – 37.13 Mb
PubMed search[3][4]
View/Edit HumanView/Edit Mouse

IL-2 receptor

IL-2 is a member of a cytokine family, each member of which has a four alpha helix bundle; the family also includes IL-4, IL-7, IL-9, IL-15 and IL-21. IL-2 signals through the IL-2 receptor, a complex consisting of three chains, termed alpha (CD25), beta (CD122) and gamma (CD132). The gamma chain is shared by all family members.[6]

The IL-2 receptor (IL-2R) α subunit binds IL-2 with low affinity (Kd~ 10−8 M). Interaction of IL-2 and CD25 alone does not lead to signal transduction due to its short intracellular chain but has the ability (when bound to the β and γ subunit) to increase the IL-2R affinity 100-fold.[7][5] Heterodimerization of the β and γ subunits of IL-2R is essential for signalling in T cells.[8] IL-2 can signalize either via intermediate-affinity dimeric CD122/CD132 IL-2R (Kd~ 10−9 M) or high-affinity trimeric CD25/CD122/CD132 IL-2R (Kd~ 10−11 M).[7] Dimeric IL-2R is expressed by memory CD8+ T cells and NK cells, whereas regulatory T cells and activated T cells express high levels of trimeric IL-2R.[5]

IL-2 signaling pathways and regulation

The pleiotropic effects of IL-2 are enabled due to the fact that IL-2 signal can be transduced via 3 different signaling pathways; JAK-STAT, PI3K/Akt/mTOR and MAPK/ERK pathway.[5] After IL-2 binding to its receptor, cytoplasmatic domains of CD122 and CD132 heterodimerize. This leads to the activation of Janus kinases JAK1 and JAK3 which subsequently phosphorylate T338 on CD122. This phosphorylation recruits STAT transcription factors, predominantly STAT5, which dimerize and migrate to the cell nucleus where they bind to DNA.[9]

Gene expression regulation for IL-2 can be on multiple levels or by different ways. One of the checkpoints is signaling through TCR, antigen receptor of T-lymphocytes after recognizing MHC-peptide complex. Signaling pathway from TCR then goes through phospholipase-C (PLC) dependent pathway. PLC activates 3 major transcription factors and their pathways: NFAT, NFkB and AP-1. After costimulation from CD28 the optimal activation of expression of IL-2 and these pathways is induced.

At the same time Oct-1 is expressed. It helps the activation. Oct1 is expressed in T-lymphocytes and Oct2 is induced after cell activation.

NFAT has multiple family members, all of them are located in cytoplasm and signaling goes through calcineurin, NFAT is dephosphorylated and therefore translocated to the nucleus.

AP-1 is a dimer and is composed of c-Jun and c-Fos proteins. It cooperates with other transcription factors including NFkB and Oct.

NFkB is translocated to the nucleus after costimulation through CD28. NFkB is a heterodimer and there are two binding sites on the IL-2 promoter.


IL-2 has essential roles in key functions of the immune system, tolerance and immunity, primarily via its direct effects on T cells. In the thymus, where T cells mature, it prevents autoimmune diseases by promoting the differentiation of certain immature T cells into regulatory T cells, which suppress other T cells that are otherwise primed to attack normal healthy cells in the body. IL-2 enhances activation-induced cell death (AICD).[5] IL-2 also promotes the differentiation of T cells into effector T cells and into memory T cells when the initial T cell is also stimulated by an antigen, thus helping the body fight off infections.[6] Together with other polarizing cytokines, IL-2 stimulates naive CD4+ T cell differentiation into Th1 and Th2 lymphocytes while it impedes differentiation into Th17 and folicular Th lymphocytes.[10]

Its expression and secretion is tightly regulated and functions as part of both transient positive and negative feedback loops in mounting and dampening immune responses. Through its role in the development of T cell immunologic memory, which depends upon the expansion of the number and function of antigen-selected T cell clones, it plays a key role in enduring cell-mediated immunity.[6][11]

Role in disease

While the causes of itchiness are poorly understood, some evidence indicates that IL-2 is involved in itchy psoriasis.[12]

Medical use

Pharmaceutical analogues

Aldesleukin is a form of recombinant interleukin-2. It is manufactured using recombinant DNA technology and is marketed as a protein therapeutic and branded as Proleukin. It has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and in several European countries for the treatment of cancers (malignant melanoma, renal cell cancer) in large intermittent doses and has been extensively used in continuous doses.[13][14][15]

Interking is a recombinant IL-2 with a serine at residue 125, sold by Shenzhen Neptunus.[16]

Neoleukin 2/15 is a computationally designed mimic of IL-2 that was designed to avoid common side effects.[17] It is currently being commercialized into a therapeutic.[18]


Various dosages of IL-2 across the United States and across the world are used. The efficacy and side effects of different dosages is often a point of disagreement.

The commercial interest in local IL-2 therapy has been very low. Because only a very low dose IL-2 is used, treatment of a patient would cost about $ 500 commercial value of the patented IL-2. The commercial return on investment is too low to stimulate additional clinical studies for the registration of intratumoral IL-2 therapy.

United States

Usually, in the U.S., the higher dosage option is used, affected by cancer type, response to treatment and general patient health. Patients are typically treated for five consecutive days, three times a day, for fifteen minutes. The following approximately 10 days help the patient to recover between treatments. IL-2 is delivered intravenously on an inpatient basis to enable proper monitoring of side effects.[19]

A lower dose regimen involves injection of IL-2 under the skin typically on an outpatient basis. It may alternatively be given on an inpatient basis over 1–3 days, similar to and often including the delivery of chemotherapy.[19]

Intralesional IL-2 is commonly used to treat in-transit melanoma metastases and has a high complete response rate.[20]

Local application

In preclinical and early clinical studies, local application of IL-2 in the tumor has been shown to be clinical more effective in anticancer therapy than systemic IL-2 therapy, over a broad range of doses, without serious side effects.[21]

Tumour blood vessels are more vulnerable than normal blood vessels to the actions of IL-2. When injected inside a tumor, i.e. local application, a process mechanistically similar to the vascular leakage syndrome, occurs in tumor tissue only. Disruption of the blood flow inside of the tumor effectively destroy tumor tissue.[22]

In local application, the systemic dose of IL-2 is too low to cause side effects, since the total dose is about 100 to 1000 fold lower. Clincial studies showed painfull injections at the site of radiation at the most important side effect, reported by patients. In the case of irradiation of nasopharyngeal carcinoma the five-year disease-free survival increased from 8% to 63% by local IL-2 therapy [23]


Systemic IL-2 has a narrow therapeutic window, and the level of dosing usually determines the severity of the side effects.[24] In the case of local IL-2 application, the therapeutic window spans several orders of magnitude.[21]

Some common side effects:[19]

More serious and dangerous side effects sometimes are seen, such as breathing problems, serious infections, seizures, allergic reactions, heart problems, renal failure or a variety of other possible complications.[19] The most common adverse effect of high-dose IL-2 therapy is vascular leak syndrome (VLS; also termed capillary leak syndrome). It is caused by lung endothelial cells expressing high-affinity IL-2R. These cells, as a result of IL-2 binding, causes increased vascular permeability. Thus, intravavsular fluid extravasate into organs, predominantly lungs, which leads to life-threatening pulmonary or brain oedema.[25]

Another drawbacks of IL-2 cancer immunotherapy are its short half-life in circulation and its ability to predominantly expand regulatory T cells at high doses.[5][6]

Intralesional IL-2 used to treat in-transit melanoma metastases is generally well-tolerated.[20] This is also the case for intralesional IL-2 in other forms of cancer, like nasopharyngeal carcinoma.[23]

Pharmaceutical derivative

Eisai markets a drug called denileukin diftitox (trade name Ontak), which is a recombinant fusion protein of the human IL-2 ligand and the diphtheria toxin.[26] This drug binds to IL-2 receptors and introduces the diphtheria toxin into cells that express those receptors, killing the cells. In some leukemias and lymphomas, malignant cells express the IL-2 receptor, so denileukin diftitox can kill them. In 1999 Ontak was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of cutaneous T cell lymphoma (CTCL).[27]

Preclinical research

IL-2 does not follow the classical dose-response curve of chemotherapeutics. The immunological activity of high and low dose IL-2 show sharp contrast. This might be related to different distribution of IL-2 receptors (CD25, CD122, CD132) on different cell populations, resulting in different cells that are actvated by high and low dose IL-2. In general high doses are immune suppressive, while low doses can stimulate type 1 immunity.[28] Low-dose IL-2 has been reported to reduce hepatitis C and B infection.[29]

IL-2 has been used in clinical trials for the treatment of chronic viral infections and as a booster (adjuvant) for vaccines. The use of large doses of IL-2 given every 6–8 weeks in HIV therapy, similar to its use in cancer therapy, was found to be ineffective in preventing progression to an AIDS diagnosis in two large clinical trials published in 2009.[30]

More recently low dose IL-2 has shown early success in modulating the immune system in disease like type 1 diabetes and vasculitis.[31] There are also promising studies looking to use low dose IL-2 in ischaemic heart disease.[32]

IL-2/anti-IL-2 mAb immune complexes (IL-2 ic)

IL-2 cannot accomplish its role as a promising immunotherapeutic agent due to significant drawbacks which are listed above. Some of the issues can be overcome using IL-2 ic. They are composed of IL-2 and some of its monoclonal antibody (mAb) and can potentiate biologic activity of IL-2 in vivo. The main mechanism of this phenomenon in vivo is due to the prolongation of the cytokine half-life in circulation. Depending on the clone of IL-2 mAb, IL-2 ic can selectively stimulate either CD25high (IL-2/JES6-1 complexes), or CD122high cells (IL-2/S4B6). IL-2/S4B6 immune complexes have high stimulátory activity for NK cells and memory CD8+ T cells and they could thus replace the conventional IL-2 in cancer immunotherapy. On the other hand, IL-2/JES6-1 highly selectively stimulate regulatory T cells and they could be potentially useful for transplantations and in treatment of autoimmune diseases.[33][5]


According to an immunology textbook: "IL-2 is particularly important historically, as it is the first type I cytokine that was cloned, the first type I cytokine for which a receptor component was cloned, and was the first short-chain type I cytokine whose receptor structure was solved. Many general principles have been derived from studies of this cytokine including its being the first cytokine demonstrated to act in a growth factor–like fashion through specific high-affinity receptors, analogous to the growth factors being studied by endocrinologists and biochemists".[34]:712

In the mid-1960s, studies reported "activities" in leukocyte-conditioned media that promoted lymphocyte proliferation.[35]:16 In the mid-1970s, it was discovered that T-cells could be selectively proliferated when normal human bone marrow cells were cultured in conditioned medium obtained from phytohemagglutinin-stimulated normal human lymphocytes.[34]:712 The key factor was isolated from cultured mouse cells in 1979 and from cultured human cells in 1980.[36] The gene for human IL-2 was cloned in 1982 after an intense competition.[37]:76

Commercial activity to bring an IL-2 drug to market was intense in the 1980s and '90s. By 1983, Cetus Corporation had created a proprietary recombinant version of IL-2 (Aldesleukin, later branded as Proleukin), with the alanine removed from its N-terminal and residue 125 replaced with serine.[37]:76–77[38]:201[39] Amgen later entered the field with its own proprietary, mutated, recombinant protein and Cetus and Amgen were soon competing scientifically and in the courts; Cetus won the legal battles and forced Amgen out of the field.[37]:151 By 1990 Cetus had gotten aldesleukin approved in nine European countries but in that year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to approve Cetus' application to market IL-2.[15] The failure led to the collapse of Cetus, and in 1991 the company was sold to Chiron Corporation.[40][41] Chiron continued the development of IL-2, which was finally approved by the FDA as Proleukin for metastatic renal carcinoma in 1992.[42]

By 1993 aldesleukin was the only approved version of IL-2, but Roche was also developing a proprietary, modified, recombinant IL-2 called teceleukin, with a methionine added at is N-terminal, and Glaxo was developing a version called bioleukin, with a methionine added at is N-terminal and residue 125 replaced with alanine. Dozens of clinical trials had been conducted of recombinant or purified IL-2, alone, in combination with other drugs, or using cell therapies, in which cells were taken from patients, activated with IL-2, then reinfused.[39][43] Novartis acquired Chiron in 2006[44] and sold the aldesleukin business to Prometheus Laboratories in 2010[45] before global rights to Proleukin were subsequently acquired by Clinigen in 2018 and 2019.


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