Interleukin 12 (IL-12) plays major roles in immune defense against intracellular pathogens. By activating T cells and increasing antigen presentation, it is also a very potent anti-tumor molecule. Strong immune activation and systemic toxicity, however, so far limit its potential therapeutic use. Building on recent experimental structures of IL-12 related cytokine:receptor complexes, we here provide a high-resolution computational model of the human IL-12:receptor complex. We design attenuated IL-12 variants with lower receptor binding affinities based on molecular dynamics simulations, and subsequently validate them experimentally. These variants show reduced activation of natural killer cells while maintaining T cell activation. This immunological signature is important to develop IL-12 for cancer treatment, where natural killer cells contribute to severe side-effects. Taken together, our study provides detailed insights into structure and dynamics of the human IL-12:receptor complex and leverages them for engineering attenuated variants to elicit fewer side-effects while maintaining relevant biological activity.
Keywords: Cytokine engineering; IL-12; Interleukin; Interleukin receptor; Molecular dynamics.