TGF-beta Family


Transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) is a multifunctional cytokine belonging to the transforming growth factor superfamily that includes four different isoforms (TGF-β 1 to 4) and many other signaling proteins produced by all white blood cell lineages. Activated TGF-β complexes with other factors to form a serine/threonine kinase complex that binds to TGF-β receptors, which is composed of both type 1 and type 2 receptor subunits. After the binding of TGF-β, the type 2 receptor kinase phosphorylates and activates the type 1 receptor kinase that activates a signaling cascade. This leads to the activation of different downstream substrates and regulatory proteins, inducing transcription of different target genes that function in differentiation, chemotaxis, proliferation, and activation of many immune cells.

TGF-β is secreted by many cell types, including macrophages, in a latent form in which it is complexed with two other polypeptides, latent TGF-beta binding protein (LTBP) and latency-associated peptide (LAP). Serum proteinases such as plasmin catalyze the release of active TGF-β from the complex. This often occurs on the surface of macrophages where the latent TGF-β complex is bound to CD36 via its ligand, thrombospondin-1 (TSP-1). Inflammatory stimuli that activate macrophages enhance the release of active TGF-β by promoting the activation of plasmin. Macrophages can also endocytose IgG-bound latent TGF-β complexes that are secreted by plasma cells and then release active TGF-β into the extracellular fluid. Among its key functions is regulation of inflammatory processes, particularly in the gut. TGF-β also plays a crucial role in stem cell differentiation as well as T-cell regulation and differentiation. As such, it is a highly researched cytokine in the fields of cancer, auto-immune diseases, and infectious disease.

Members of TGF-β

The peptide structures of the TGF-β isoforms are highly similar (homologies on the order of 70–80%). They are all encoded as large protein precursors; TGF-β1 contains 390 amino acids and TGF-β2 and TGF-β3 each contain 412 amino acids. They each have an N-terminal signal peptide of 20–30 amino acids that they require for secretion from a cell, a pro-region called latency associated peptide (LAP - Alias: Pro-TGF beta 1, LAP/TGF beta 1), and a 112-114 amino acid C-terminal region that becomes the mature TGF-β molecule following its release from the pro-region by proteolytic cleavage.

Table 1. TGF-β family related products

TGF-β Receptors CD109 TGFBR1 TGFBR2
  • TGF-β1

Transforming growth factor beta 1 or TGF-β1 is a polypeptide member of the transforming growth factor beta superfamily of cytokines. It is a secreted protein that performs many cellular functions, including the control of cell growth, cell proliferation, cell differentiation, and apoptosis. In humans, TGF-β1 is encoded by the TGFB1 gene. TGF-β1 was first identified in human platelets as a protein with a molecular mass of 25 kilodaltons with a potential role in wound healing. It was later characterized as a large protein precursor (containing 390 amino acids) that was proteolytically processed to produce a mature peptide of 112 amino acids. TGF-β1 plays an important role in controlling the immune system, and shows different activities on different types of cell, or cells at different developmental stages. Most immune cells (or leukocytes) secrete TGF-β1.

Structure of the TGFB1 protein

Figure 1. Structure of the TGFB1 protein.

  • TGF-β2

Transforming growth factor-beta 2 (TGF-β2) is a secreted protein known as a cytokine that performs many cellular functions and has a vital role during embryonic development (alternative names: Glioblastoma-derived T-cell suppressor factor, G-TSF, BSC-1 cell growth inhibitor, Polyergin, Cetermin). It is an extracellular glycosylated protein. It is known to suppress the effects of interleukin dependent T-cell tumors. There are two named isoforms of this protein, created by alternative splicing of the same gene.

  • TGF-β3

Transforming growth factor beta-3 is a protein that in humans is encoded by the TGFB3 gene. It is a type of protein, known as a cytokine, which is involved in cell differentiation, embryogenesis and development. TGF-β3 is believed to regulate molecules involved in cellular adhesion and extracellular matrix (ECM) formation during the process of palate development. Without TGF-β3, mammals develop a deformity known as a cleft palate. This is caused by failure of epithelial cells in both sides of the developing palate to fuse. TGF-β3 also plays an essential role in controlling the development of lungs in mammals, by also regulating cell adhesion and ECM formation in this tissue, and controls wound healing by regulating the movements of epidermal and dermal cells in injured skin.

Structure of the TGFB3 protein

Figure 2. Structure of the TGFB3 protein.

Cellular functions

  • T lymphocytes

TGF-β1 plays a role in the induction from CD4+ T cells of both induced Tregs (iTregs), which have a regulatory function, and Th17 cells, which secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines. TGF-β1 alone precipitates the expression of Foxp3 and Treg differentiation from activated T helper cells, and the mechanism for this differentiation is unknown for both induced T regulatory cells as well as natural T regulatory cells. In mouse models, the effect of TGF-β1 appears to be age-dependent. Studies show that neutralization of TGF-β1 in vitro inhibits the differentiation of helper T cells into Th17 cells. The role of TGF-β1 in the generation of Th17 cells goes against its dominant conceptualization as an anti-inflammatory cytokine; however, the shared requirement between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory immune cells suggests that an imbalance between these two cell types can be an important link to autoimmunity. Co-activation by IL-6 from activated dendritic cells, which serves to activate the transcription factor STAT3, is required in addition to TGF-β1 for the differentiation of Th17 cells.

  • B lymphocytes

TGF-β has mainly inhibitory effects on B lymphocytes. TGF-β inhibits B cell proliferation. The exact mechanism is unknown, but there is evidence that TGF-β inhibits B cell proliferation by inducing the transcription factor Id3, inducing expression of cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor 21 (a regulator of cell cycle progression through the G1 and S phase), and repressing other key regulatory genes such as c-myc and ATM. CD40, a key surface molecule in the activation of the innate immune response, can induce Smad7 expression to reverse the growth inhibition of B cells induced by TGF-β. TGF-β also blocks B cell activation and promotes class switching IgA in both human and mouse B cells and has an otherwise inhibitory function for antibody production. TGF-β also induces apoptosis of immature or resting B cells; the mechanism is unknown, but may overlap with its anti-proliferation pathway. TGF-β has been shown to downregulate c-myc as it does in the inhibition of B cell proliferation. It is also known to induce NF-κB inhibitor IKBa, inhibiting NF-κB activation.

  • Macrophages

TGF-β stimulates resting monocytes and inhibits activated macrophages. For monocytes, TGF-β has been shown to function as a chemoattractant as well as an upregulator of inflammatory response. However, TGF-β has also been shown to downregulate inflammatory cytokine production in monocytes and macrophages, likely by the aforementioned inhibition of NF-κB. This contradiction may be due to the fact that the effect of TGF-β has been shown to be highly context-dependent. TGF-β is thought to play a role in alternative macrophage activation seen in lean mice, and these macrophages maintain an anti-inflammatory phenotype. This phenotype is lost in obese mice, who have not only more macrophages than lean mice but also classically activated macrophages which release TNF-α and other pro-inflammatory cytokines that contribute to a chronically pro-inflammatory milieu.

Role in disease

Physiological levels of TGF-β are thought to be essential for normal development, tissue repair and maintenance of organ functions. Further beneficial aspects of TGF-β include its anti-inflammatory actions via the inhibition of mitogenesis and cytokine responses of glomerular cells, and the suppression of accumulation and function of infiltrating cells. TGF-β1 knockout mice showed multiorgan inflammation, including the kidney. Yet, overexpression of TGF-β has also been closely linked with pathological alterations characteristic of various kidney diseases, which reflects the ‘dark side’ of this cytokine. In human glomerular disease, such as in focal and segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), IgA nephropathy, crescentic glomerulonephritis, lupus nephritis and diabetic nephropathy (DN), TGF-β has been regarded as a pivotal molecule that contributes to glomerulosclerosis. In these diseases, which are mainly characterized by excessive ECM accumulation, a significantly increased expression of all three TGF-β isoforms as well as TGF-β receptors in the glomeruli and the tubulointerstitium has been demonstrated.

The cytokine TGF-β plays a central role in the glomerular and tubulointerstitial pathobiology of renal disease by contributing to pathological alterations which induce alterations of glomerular filtration barrier, glomerulosclerosis and fibrosis and the degeneration of tubules leading to permanent renal dysfunction. While the TGF-β axis can be a powerful potential target of therapeutic strategies, it should also be noted that a chronic inhibition of the actions of TGF-β could have grave side effects.


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