Cytokines function in many roles that are highly relevant to radiation research. This review focuses on how cytokines are structurally organized, how they are induced by radiation, and how they orchestrate mesenchymal, epithelial and immune cell interactions in irradiated tissues.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines are the major components of immediate early gene programs and as such can be rapidly activated after tissue irradiation. They converge with the effects of ionizing radiation in that both generate free radicals including reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (ROS/RNS). “Self” molecules secreted or released from cells after irradiation feed the same paradigm by signaling for ROS and cytokine production. As a result, multilayered feedback control circuits can be generated that perpetuate the radiation tissue damage response. The pro-inflammatory phase persists until such times as perceived challenges to host integrity are eliminated. Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory cytokines then act to restore homeostasis. The balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory forces may shift to and fro for a long time after radiation exposure, creating waves as the host tries to deal with persisting pathogenesis.
Individual cytokines function within socially interconnected groups to direct these integrated cellular responses. They hunt in packs and form complex cytokine networks that are nested within each other so as to form mutually reinforcing or antagonistic forces. This yin-yang balance appears to have redox as a fulcrum. Because of their social organization, cytokines appear to have a considerable degree of redundancy and it follows that an elevated level of a specific cytokine in a disease situation or after irradiation does not necessarily implicate it causally in pathogenesis. In spite of this, “driver” cytokines are emerging in pathogenic situations that can clearly be targeted for therapeutic benefit, including in radiation settings. Cytokines can greatly affect intrinsic cellular radiosensitivity, the incidence and type of radiation tissue complications, bystander effects, genomic instability and cancer. Minor and not so minor, polymorphisms in cytokine genes give considerable diversity within populations and are relevant to causation of disease. Therapeutic intervention is made difficult by such complexity; but the potential prize is great.