Rhinovirus infections are the major cause of asthma exacerbations. We hypothesised that IL-15, a cytokine implicated in innate and acquired antiviral immunity, may be deficient in asthma and important in the pathogenesis of asthma exacerbations. We investigated regulation of IL-15 induction by rhinovirus in human macrophages in vitro, IL-15 levels in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid and IL-15 induction by rhinovirus in BAL macrophages from asthmatic and control subjects, and related these to outcomes of infection in vivo. Rhinovirus induced IL-15 in macrophages was replication-, NF-κB- and α/β interferon-dependent. BAL macrophage IL-15 induction by rhinovirus was impaired in asthmatics and inversely related to lower respiratory symptom severity during experimental rhinovirus infection. IL-15 levels in BAL fluid were also decreased in asthmatics and inversely related with airway hyperresponsiveness and with virus load during in vivo rhinovirus infection. Deficient IL-15 production in asthma may be important in the pathogenesis of asthma exacerbations.
We previously reported deficiency in interferon production in asthma, which correlated with disease severity and viral load during experimental rhinovirus infection. Here we show that macrophages produce IL-15 upon rhinovirus infection and that IFN-β plays an important role in IL-15 production. In asthmatic subjects, there is a deficiency in rhinovirus-induced production of IL-15 by macrophages, which indicates immunodeficiency in asthma is surprisingly broad, also involving IL-15, an important cytokine that bridges innate and acquired immunity. These results show that IFN-β therapy in asthma exacerbations could be effective not only due to direct anti-viral effects of IFN-β, but also by inducing IL-15 production. We also show induction of IFN-β and IL-15 to be NF-kB dependent, an important finding which has implications for NF-kB inhibitor drug development programmes as these drugs have potential to worsen rather than improve asthma exacerbation severity, by further enhancing deficiencies of IL-15 and IFN-β. This study investigating the role of IL-15 in rhinovirus infection and asthma has also major implications in other diseases, for example pandemic influenza, where asthma is a major risk factor for severe disease and death, and COPD and cystic fibrosis where IFN-β deficiency is also present.