This topically limited review explores the relationship between the immune system and insulin-like growth factors (IGF-I and IGF-II) and the proteins through which they act, including IGF-I receptor (IGF-IR) and the IGF-I binding proteins. The IGF/IGF-IR pathway plays important and diverse roles in tissue development and function. It regulates cell cycle progression, apoptosis, and the translation of proteins. Many of the consequences ascribed to IGF-IR activation result from its association with several accessory proteins that are either identical or closely related to those involved in insulin receptor signaling. Relatively recent awareness that IGF-I and IGF-IR regulate immune function has cast this pathway in an unexpected light; it may represent an important switch governing the quality and amplitude of immune responses. IGF-I/IGF-IR signaling may also participate in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases, although its relationship with these processes seems complex and relatively unexplored. On the one hand, IGF-I seems to protect experimental animals from developing insulin-deficient diabetes mellitus. In contrast, activating antibodies directed at IGF-IR have been detected in patients with Graves' disease, where the receptor is overexpressed by multiple cell types. The frequency of IGF-IR+ B and T cells is substantially increased in patients with that disease. Potential involvement of IGF-I and IGF-IR in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases suggests that this pathway might constitute an attractive therapeutic target. IGF-IR has been targeted in efforts directed toward drug development for cancer, employing both small-molecule and monoclonal antibody approaches. These have been generally well-tolerated. Recognizing the broader role of IGF-IR in regulating both normal and pathological immune responses may offer important opportunities for therapeutic intervention in several allied diseases that have proven particularly difficult to treat.
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