Eosinophils, along with mast cells are key cells involved in the innate immune response against parasitic infection whereas the adaptive immune response is largely dependent on lymphocytes. In chronic parasitic disease and in chronic allergic disease, IL-5 is predominantly a T cell derived cytokine which is particularly important for the terminal differentiation, activation and survival of committed eosinophil precursors. The human IL-5 gene is located on chromosome 5 in a gene cluster that contains the evolutionary related IL-4 family of cytokine genes. The human IL-5 receptor complex is a heterodimer consisting of a unique alpha subunit (predominantly expressed on eosinophils) and a beta subunit which is shared between the receptors for IL-3 & GM-CSF (more widely expressed). The a subunit is required for ligand-specific binding whereas association with the b subunit results in increased binding affinity. The alternative splicing of the alphaIL-5R gene which contains 14 exons can yield several alphaIL-5R isoforms including a membrane-anchored isoform (alphaIL-5Rm) and a soluble isoform (alphaIL-5Rs). Cytokines such as IL-5 produce specific and non-specific cellular responses through specific cell membrane receptor mediated activation of intracellular signal transduction pathways which, to a large part, regulate gene expression. The major intracellular signal transduction mechanism is activation of non-receptor associated tyrosine kinases including JAK and MAP kinases which can then transduce signals via a novel family of transcriptional factors named signal transducers and activators of transcription (STATS). JAK2, STAT1 and STAT 5 appear to be particularly important in IL-5 mediated eosinophil responses.
Asthma is characterized by episodic airways obstruction, increased bronchial responsiveness, and airway inflammation. Several studies have shown an association between the number of activated T cells and eosinophils in the airways and abnormalities in FEV1, airway reactivity and clinical severity in asthma. It has now been well documented that IL-5 is highly expressed in the bronchial mucosa of atopic and intrinsic asthmatics and that the increased IL-5 mRNA present in airway tissues is predominantly T cell derived. Immunocytochemical staining of bronchial biopsy sections has confirmed that IL-5 mRNA transcripts are translated into protein in asthmatic subjects. Furthermore, the number of activated CD 4 + T cells and IL-5 mRNA positive cells are increased in asthmatic airways following antigen challenge and studies that have examined IL-5 expression in asthmatic subjects before and after steroids have shown significantly decreased expression following oral corticosteroid treatment in steroid-sensitive asthma but not in steroid resistant and chronic severe steroid dependent asthma. The link between T cell derived IL-5 and eosinophil activation in asthmatic airways is further strengthened by the demonstration that there is an increased number of alphaIL-5R mRNA positive cells in the bronchial biopsies of atopic and non-atopic asthmatic subjects and that the eosinophil is the predominant site of this increased alphaIL-5R mRNA expression. We have also shown that the subset of activated eosinophils that expressed mRNA for membrane bound a IL5r inversely correlated with FEV1, whereas the subset of activated eosinophils that expressed mRNA for soluble alphaIL5r directly correlated with FEV1. Hence, not only does this data suggest that the presence of eosinophils expressing alphaIL-5R mRNA contribute towards the pathogenesis of bronchial asthma, but also that the eosinophil phenotype with respect to alphaIL-5R isoform expression is of central importance. Finally, there are several animal, and more recently in vitro lung explant, models of allergen induced eosinophilia, late airway responses(LARS), and bronchial hyperresponsiveness(BHR) - all of which support a link between IL-5 and airway eosinophila and bronchial hyperresponsiveness. The most direct demonstration of T cell involvement in LARS is the finding that these physiological responses can be transferred by CD4+ but not CD8+ T cells in rats. The importance of IL-5 in animal models of allergen induced bronchial hyperresponsiveness has been further demonstrated by a number of studies which have indicated that IL-5 administration is able to induce late phase responses and BHR and that anti-IL-5 antibody can block allergen induced late phase responses and BHR.
In summary, activated T lymphocytes, IL5 production and eosinophil activation are particularly important in the asthmatic response. Human studies in asthma and studies in allergic animal models have clearly emphasised the unique role of IL-5 in linking T lymphocytes and adaptive immunity, the eosinophil effector cell, and the asthma phenotype. The central role of activated lymphocytes and eosinophils in asthma would argue for the likely therapeutic success of strategies to block T cell and eosinophil activation (eg steroids). Importantly, more targeted therapies may avoid the complications associated with steroids. Such therapies could target key T cell activation proteins and cytokines by various means including blocking antibodies (eg anti-CD4, anti-CD40, anti-IL-5 etc), antisense oligonucleotides to their specific mRNAs, and/or selective inhibition of the promoter sites for these genes. Another option would be to target key eosinophil activation mechanisms including the alphaIL5r. As always, the risk to benefit ratio of such strategies await the results of well conducted clinical trials.