Mechanisms of action of ruxolitinib in murine models of hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis

Sabrin Albeituni, Katherine C. Verbist, Paige E. Tedrick, Heather Tillman, Jennifer Picarsic, Rachel Bassett and Kim E. Nichols

Key Points

  • The JAK1/2 inhibitor ruxolitinib dampens inflammation in HLH via IFN-γ–dependent and –independent mechanisms.

  • Ruxolitinib exerts its beneficial effects in HLH by targeting T-cell and neutrophil activation and tissue infiltration.

Publisher's Note: There is a Blood Commentary on this article in this issue.


Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is an often-fatal disorder characterized by the overactivation of T cells and macrophages that excessively produce proinflammatory cytokines, including interferon-γ (IFN-γ). Previously, we reported that the JAK inhibitor ruxolitinib dampens T-cell activation and lessens inflammation in a model of HLH in which perforin-deficient (Prf1−/−) mice are infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). Ruxolitinib inhibits signaling downstream of IFN-γ, as well as several other JAK-dependent cytokines. As a consequence, it remained unclear whether ruxolitinib was exerting its beneficial effects in HLH by inhibiting IFN-γ signaling or by targeting signaling initiated by other proinflammatory cytokines. To address this question, we compared the effects of ruxolitinib with those obtained using an IFN-γ–neutralizing antibody (αIFN-γ) in 2 murine HLH models. In both models, ruxolitinib and αIFN-γ reduced inflammation-associated anemia, indicating that ruxolitinib operates in an IFN-γ–dependent manner to reverse this HLH manifestation. In contrast, the number and activation status of T cells and neutrophils, as well as their infiltration into tissues, were significantly reduced following treatment with ruxolitinib, but they remained unchanged or were increased following treatment with αIFN-γ. Notably, despite discontinuation of ruxolitinib, LCMV-infected Prf1−/− mice exhibited enhanced survival compared with mice in which αIFN-γ was discontinued. This protective effect could be mimicked by transient treatment with αIFN-γ and a neutrophil-depleting antibody. Thus, ruxolitinib operates through IFN-γ–dependent and -independent mechanisms to dampen HLH by targeting the deleterious effects of T cells and neutrophils, with the latter representing an unappreciated and understudied cell type that contributes to HLH pathogenesis.

  • Submitted November 29, 2018.
  • Accepted April 17, 2019.
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