Putting the Brakes on Chronic Inflammation

Scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine have discovered a previously unknown link between two key pathways that regulate the immune system in mammals—a finding that impacts our understanding of chronic inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). This family of disorders severely impacts the health and quality of life of more than 2 million people in the United States.

The immune system has many pathways to protect the body from infection, but sometimes an overactive immune response results in autoimmune diseases including IBD, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Interleukin-23 (IL-23) is one such immune factor that fights infections but is also implicated in many of these inflammatory diseases. However, it was unknown why IL-23 is sometimes beneficial, and other times becomes a driver of chronic disease.

In the study, published June 12 in Nature, the team found that IL-23 acts on group 3 innate lymphoid cells (ILC3s), a family of immune cells that are a first line of defense in mucosal tissues such as the intestines and lungs. In response, ILC3s increase activity of CTLA-4, a key regulatory factor that prevents the immune system from attacking the body and beneficial gut microbiota. This interaction critically balances the pro-inflammatory effects IL-23 to maintain gut health, but is impaired in IBD.

The findings identify ILC3s as a critical link between potent IL-23 driven inflammatory response and checkpoints for immune regulation in the intestine. It also provides clues on how to harness this pathway to fight cancer and alleviate a serious side effect of cancer immunotherapy. 

Dr. Gregory Sonnenberg

Dr. Gregory Sonnenberg (left) and Dr. Anees Ahmed (right)

“We were surprised to uncover the unexpected connection between these two major immune pathways that control health, immunity and inflammation,” said senior author Dr. Gregory Sonnenberg, the Henry R. Erle, M.D.-Roberts Family Professor of Medicine, head of basic research in the Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology and a member of the  Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Until now most research on CTLA-4 focused on T cells, another type of immune cell. By uncovering that it is selectively upregulated on ILC3s by IL-23, this demonstrates that we should be thinking about these pathways more broadly to develop more selective therapeutics.”

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