The IL-12 family cytokines are a group of unique heterodimeric cytokines that include IL-12, IL-23, IL-27, IL-35 and, most recently, IL-39. Recent studies have solidified the importance of IL-12 cytokines in shaping innate and adaptive immune responses in cancer and identified multipronged roles for distinct IL-12 family members, ranging from effector to regulatory immune functions. These cytokines could serve as promising candidates for the development of immunomodulatory therapeutic approaches. Overall, IL-12 can be considered an effector cytokine and has been found to engage anti-tumor immunity by activating the effector Th1 response, which is required for the activation of cytotoxic T and NK cells and tumor clearance. IL-23 and IL-27 play dual roles in tumor immunity, as they can both activate effector immune responses and promote tumor growth by favoring immune suppression. IL-35 is a potent regulatory cytokine and plays a largely pro-tumorigenic role by inhibiting effector T cells. In this review, we summarize the recent findings on IL-12 family cytokines in the control of tumor growth with an emphasis primarily on immune regulation. We underscore the clinical implications for the use of these cytokines either in the setting of monotherapy or in combination with other conventional therapies for the more effective treatment of malignancies.
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