Historically, interleukin-2 (IL-2) was first described as an immunostimulatory factor that supports the expansion of activated effector T cells. A layer of sophistication arose when regulatory CD4 + T lymphocytes (Tregs) were shown to require IL-2 for their development, homeostasis, and immunosuppressive functions. Fundamental distinctions in the nature and spatiotemporal expression patterns of IL-2 receptor subunits on naive/memory/effector T cells versus Tregs are now being exploited to manipulate the immunomodulatory effects of IL-2 for therapeutic purposes. Although high-dose IL-2 administration has yielded discrete clinical responses, low-dose IL-2 as well as innovative strategies based on IL-2 derivatives, including “muteins,” immunocomplexes, and immunocytokines, are being explored to therapeutically enhance or inhibit the immune response.
Regulatory T cells (T reg cells) play a major role in controlling the pathogenic autoimmune process in type 1 diabetes (T1D). Interleukin 2 (IL-2), a cytokine which promotes T reg cell survival and function, may thus have therapeutic efficacy in T1D. We show that 5 d of low-dose IL-2 administration starting at the time of T1D onset can reverse established disease in NOD (nonobese diabetic) mice, with long-lasting effects. Low-dose IL-2 increases the number of T reg cells in the pancreas and induces expression of T reg cell–associated proteins including Foxp3, CD25, CTLA-4, ICOS (inducible T cell costimulator), and GITR (glucocorticoid-induced TNF receptor) in these cells. Treatment also suppresses interferon γ production by pancreas-infiltrating T cells. Transcriptome analyses show that low-dose IL-2 exerts much greater influence on gene expression of T reg cells than effector T cells (T eff cells), suggesting that nonspecific activation of pathogenic T eff cells is less likely. We provide the first preclinical data showing that low-dose IL-2 can reverse established T1D, suggesting that this treatment merits evaluation in patients with T1D.