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Growth/differentiation factor-15 (GDF-15), also named macrophage inhibitory cytokine-1, is a divergent member of the transforming growth factor β superfamily. While physiological expression is barely detectable in most somatic tissues in humans, GDF-15 is abundant in placenta. Elsewhere, GDF-15 is often induced under stress conditions, seemingly to maintain cell and tissue homeostasis; however, a moderate increase in GDF-15 blood levels is observed with age. Highly elevated GDF-15 levels are mostly linked to pathological conditions including inflammation, myocardial ischemia, and notably cancer. GDF-15 has thus been widely explored as a biomarker for disease prognosis. Mechanistically, induction of anorexia via the brainstem-restricted GDF-15 receptor GFRAL (glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor [GDNF] family receptor α-like) is well-documented. GDF-15 and GFRAL have thus become attractive targets for metabolic intervention. Still, several GDF-15 mediated effects (including its physiological role in pregnancy) are difficult to explain via the described pathway. Hence, there is a clear need to better understand non-metabolic effects of GDF-15. With particular emphasis on its immunomodulatory potential this review discusses the roles of GDF-15 in pregnancy and in pathological conditions including myocardial infarction, autoimmune disease, and specifically cancer. Importantly, the strong predictive value of GDF-15 as biomarker may plausibly be linked to its immune-regulatory function. The described associations and mechanistic data support the hypothesis that GDF-15 acts as immune checkpoint and is thus an emerging target for cancer immunotherapy.

Original publication




Journal article


Frontiers in immunology

Publication Date





Experimental Tumor Immunology, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Würzburg Medical School, Würzburg, Germany.


Placenta, Animals, Humans, Mice, Neoplasms, Myocardial Infarction, Autoimmune Diseases, Homeostasis, Pregnancy, Female, Growth Differentiation Factor 15, Immunomodulation, Biomarkers, Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors