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RheumDoctor Learning Center: What is a cytokine?

May 31, 2017
A picture of interleukin 6 a cytokine thought to be involved in giant cell arteritis

A cytokine is a type of protein in the body that helps cells communicate.  Here are some types of cytokines:

  • Lymphokines: Cytokines produced by lymphocytes
  • Monokines: Cytokines produced by monocytes
  • Chemokines: Cytokines that attract other cells
  • Interleukin (IL-): Cytokines produced by leukocytes that help regulate the immune system.

Sometimes cells make cytokines and those cytokines directly affect them.  This is autocrine action.  If the cell makes a cytokine and it affects a nearby cell, this is paracrine action.  Finally, if a cell makes a cytokine and it affects distant cells, this is endocrine action.

How are cytokines and autoimmune diseases related?

Researchers have identified many cytokines such as IL-1β, IL-6, IL-17, and TNF-α that play an important role in autoimmune diseases.  This information is then used to make biologic medications that specifically block problematic cytokines.


Image of interleukin 6 molecule by Ramin Herati [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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