Cytokines- Mechanism of action and Functions



  • Cytokines are a family of small proteins that mediate an organism’s response to injury or infection.
  • Cytokines operate by transmitting signals between cells in an organism.
  • Minute quantities of cytokines are secreted, each by a single cell type, and regulate functions in other cells by binding with specific receptors.
  • Their interactions with the receptors produce secondary signals that inhibit or enhance the action of certain genes within the cell.
  • Unlike endocrine hormones, which can act throughout the body, most cytokines act locally, near the cells that produced them.


  • Antigen presenting cells and T-Cell activation result in rapid intracellular biochemical cascades that induces transcription of many genes including cytokines and their receptors.
  • Cytokines are low molecular weight regulatory proteins or glycoproteins secreted by white blood cells and various other cells in the body in response to a number of stimuli.
  • Cytokines are usually secreted by cells of the immune system.
  • Some cytokines [e.g. type I interferons and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)] are secreted by non-immune cells (e.g. epithelial cells).
  • These proteins assist in regulating the development of immune effector cells, and some cytokines posses direct effector functions of their own.
  • It includes:
    • Monokines: Cytokines produced by mononuclear phogocytic cells.
    • Lymphokines: Cytokines produced by activated lymphocytes, especially Th cells.
    • Interleukins: Cytokines that act as mediators between leukocytes.
    • Chemokines: Cytokines primarily responsible for leucocyte migration.

Mechanism of Action of Cytokines

  • Cytokines bind to the specific receptors on the membrane of target cells, tiggering signal transduction pathways that ultimately alter gene expression in the target cells.
  • A particular cytokines:
    • May bind to receptors on the membrane of the same cell that secreted it, exerting autocrine action.
    • May bind to receptors on a target cell in close proximity to the producer cell, exerting paracrine action.
    • May bind to target cells in distant parts of the body exerting endocrine action.

Function of Cytokines

  • On the basis of functions, they can have three biological actions:
    • Mediators and regulators of innate immunity: are produced mainly by mono-nuclear phagocytes in response to infectious agents.
    • Mediators and regulatory of adaptive immunity: are produced mainly by T lymphocytes in response to specific recognition of foreign antigens.
    • Stimulators of hematopoiesis: are produced by bone marrow stromal cells, leukocytes, and other cells, and stimulate the growth and differentiation of immature leukocytes.

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