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What are Cytokines?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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As proteins that are produced by white blood cells, cytokines perform several important functions that allow the body to operate at optimum levels. They are often created in response to the presence of some sort of bacterial infection. White blood cells release protein that then works as neurotransmitters to carry messages throughout the nervous system. There are actually several different types of cytokines, among them lumphokines, interleukins and interferons.

Because cytokines are essentially chemical messengers, they can help to regulate the nature and intensity of the response of the body’s immune system. Taking cues from the signals conveyed by the these proteins, the immune system would be able to stimulate production of necessary chemicals to fight infection as well as take other measures to suppress the spread of harmful bacteria.

An example of how cytokines influence the immune system is that the prompting of these proteins can cause the immune system to temporarily increase the production of T-cells to combat an infection, then signal for the excess production to cease when the bacteria is brought under control. As signaling compounds, cytokines keep cell communication functioning at all times.

Hormones are another important aspect of the function of cytokines. The regulation of growth hormones is an important part of maintaining balanced health, and the proteins do their part to make sure that an acceptable rate of growth occurs, without creating any issues that would cause endocrine systems to malfunction. Peptides in the bloodstream help to maintain the balance, carrying the appropriate messages and responses back and forth through the system.

Because of the role that cytokines play in the battle against infections, researchers attempt to manufacture them in the laboratory. The basis for the research has to do with the treatment of people whose immune systems have been compromised by HIV-related circumstances. Replicating conditions for HIV and then artificially stimulating the production of cytokines may lead to options that will eventually help restore productivity to damaged immune systems.

While cytokines are an essential process within the body, they can also produce some undesirable side effect. Excess stimulation of them can lead to inflammation of the joints, outbreaks of fever, and a general sense of pain that may come and go. Generally, the side effects are short lived and will quickly subside as the production of the proteins decreases.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon300029 — On Oct 27, 2012

The difference between cytokines and hormones are still blurry. Some differences are that cytokines are not produced by specialized cells as hormones are. Cytokines are also made on demand, while some hormones (peptide hormones) are made and stored in vesicles until they are used.

By shell4life — On Jun 23, 2011

@kylee07drg - They are different. Cytokines and hormones do share some things in common and interact, but they can be distinguished.

Hormones are produced and then released into the bloodstream. This means that they can perform their duties at a distance away from their source. However, cytokines can only perform at short range by acting on neighboring cells or on themselves. Also, hormone levels in the plasma or serum are measured easily, but few cytokines can be detected there. Another difference is that cytokines regulate hormones.

By kylee07drg — On Jun 22, 2011

What is the difference between hormones and cytokines? Are they the same thing?

By OeKc05 — On Jun 20, 2011

I have been experiencing a lot of joint pain lately. My doctor says that cytokines are to blame. Rheumatoid arthritis, which I have been diagnosed with, is cause by an excess in production of cytokines, which cause inflammation and destroy tissues.

Because of this cytokine excess, I am stiff, swollen, and unable to do a lot of things I normally enjoy, such as gardening, playing the piano, and writing. I hope my new medication kicks in soon, so I can get back to my life.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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