Circulating concentrations of the pleiotropic cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) are known to be increased in pro-inflammatory critical care syndromes, such as sepsis and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Elevations in serum IL-6 concentrations in patients with severe COVID-19 have led to renewed interest in the cytokine as a therapeutic target. However, although the pro-inflammatory properties of IL-6 are widely known, the cytokine also has a series of important physiological and anti-inflammatory functions. An adequate understanding of the complex processes by which IL-6 signalling occurs is crucial for the correct interpretation of IL-6 concentrations in the blood or lung, the use of IL-6 as a critical care biomarker, or the design of effective anti-IL-6 strategies. Here, we outline the role of IL-6 in health and disease, explain the different types of IL-6 signalling and their contribution to the net biological effect of the cytokine, describe the approaches to IL-6 inhibition that are currently available, and discuss implications for the future use of treatments such as tocilizumab in the critical care setting.
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