IL-21 limits NK cell responses and promotes antigen-specific T cell activation: a mediator of the transition from innate to adaptive immunity.
IFNalpha/beta, IL-12, and IL-15 regulate NK cell activation and expansion, but signals triggering resolution of the NK response upon induction of adaptive immunity remain to be defined. We now report that IL-21, a product of activated T cells, may serve this function. Mice lacking IL-21R (IL-21R(-/-)) had normal NK cell development but no detectable responses to IL-21. IL-21 enhanced cytotoxic activity and IFNgamma production by activated murine NK cells but did not support their viability, thus limiting their duration of activation. Furthermore, IL-21 blocked IL-15-induced expansion of resting NK cells, thus preventing the initiation of further innate responses. In contrast, IL-21 enhanced the proliferation, IFNgamma production, and cytotoxic function of CD8(+) effector T cells in an allogeneic MLR. These observations suggest that IL-21 promotes the transition between innate and adaptive immunity.