Warren J. Leonard, M.D.
NIH Distinguished Investigator
Laboratory of Molecular Immunology
Critical to proper development and orchestration of the cells that comprise the immune system are a number of intercellular signaling molecules, collectively known as cytokines, which act through multimeric receptors. Dr. Leonard’s laboratory focuses on the biology, signaling, and molecular regulation of a key family of these cytokines, the interleukins, with studies ranging from basic molecular mechanisms to human disease.
Early in his career, Dr. Leonard cloned and characterized the human receptor for the immune cytokine IL‑2, making him the first to clone the receptor for a type 1 cytokine. This led to studies in which he discovered the existence of the IL-2 receptor β chain and then to a major breakthrough in which he discovered that mutations in the gene encoding the human IL-2 receptor g chain result in X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (XSCID, commonly known as the “Bubble Boy Disease”). Comparing the cellular phenotype of XSCID patients, who lack T cells and natural killer (NK) cells, with the known functions of IL-2, which does not affect T-cell or NK-cell development, Dr. Leonard predicted that the γ chain of the IL-2 receptor served a broader purpose, leading to his discovery that the γ chain is a common γ chain γc, that is shared by the receptor complexes for IL-4, IL-7, and IL-9; subsequent studies added IL-15 and IL-21 as γc family cytokines.
His laboratory applies a broad range of methodologies to both human cells and mouse models and relies on the continual interplay between basic research, which teases apart the signaling mechanisms that underlie normal immune cell development, and the study of primary human cells as well as mouse models. His laboratory has discovered multiple specific forms of immunodeficiency, including those caused by mutations in the genes encoding the intracellular signaling molecule JAK3, which associates with γc, and the receptor for IL-7.
Dr. Leonard’s lab was the first to clone the receptor for IL-21, a pleiotropic cytokine with broad actions in T and B cell biology as well as for other lineages. Dr. Leonard has elucidated its roles as an anti-cancer agent as well as a cytokine that promotes autoimmune disease. In animal models, he has demonstrated key roles for IL-21 in the development of type 1 diabetes, lupus, and experimental allergic uveitis.
Because of his expertise on γc, Dr. Leonard was involved in the first publication to report the TSLP receptor, a protein that is structurally related to the erythropoietin receptor but associates with the IL-7 receptor α chain to transduce TSLP signaling. In a mouse model of asthma, Dr. Leonard has shown that TSLP is vital to the development of allergic lung inflammation.
Dr. Leonard currently engages in a range of studies of γc family cytokines, combining state-of-the-art methodologies such as ChIP-Seq, RNA-Seq, and other molecular techniques with the analysis of human cells as well as transgenic, knock-in, and knockout mouse models to elucidate the biology and mechanisms involved in important in vivo processes. Moreover, his lab also uses next generation sequencing to search for the causes of select types of immune-related diseases, including unidentified immunodeficiencies.
Dr. Warren J. Leonard received his A.B. in mathematics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Princeton University in 1973 and his M.D. from Stanford University in 1977. After completing residency training in medicine at Barnes Hospital and a year of research in biochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Leonard came to the NIH as a postdoctoral fellow in the Metabolism Branch, National Cancer Institute in 1981. He began directing his own laboratory in the Cell Biology and Metabolism Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1985 and then joined the NHLBI in 1992. Dr. Leonard is the recipient of many honors and awards, including the American Federation for Clinical Research Foundation Outstanding Investigator Award, the Food and Drug Administration Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Outstanding Service Award, the American Association of Immunologists (AAI)-Huang Foundation Meritorious Career Award, and the Honorary Lifetime Membership Award of the International Cytokine and Interferon Society. Dr. Leonard has authored or coauthored more than 300 articles and book chapters and holds 19 patents. He is currently an Associate Editor and former Co-Editor of Immunity, on the editorial board of Cytokine, an Associate Editor of International Immunology, and a contributing member of the Faculty of 1000. Moreover, he is Past-president of the International Cytokine Society, a member of the Board and former Vice President of the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES), a member of the American Association of Immunologists, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the Association of American Physicians, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies.
- Noguchi M, Yi H, Rosenblatt HM, Filipovich AH, Adelstein S, Modi WS, McBride OW, Leonard WJ. Interleukin-2 receptor gamma chain mutation results in X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency in humans. Cell. 1993;73(1):147-57.
- Lin JX, Li P, Liu D, Jin HT, He J, Ata Ur Rasheed M, Rochman Y, Wang L, Cui K, Liu C, Kelsall BL, Ahmed R, Leonard WJ. Critical Role of STAT5 transcription factor tetramerization for cytokine responses and normal immune function. Immunity. 2012;36(4):586-99.
- Li P, Spolski R, Liao W, Wang L, Murphy TL, Murphy KM, Leonard WJ. BATF-JUN is critical for IRF4-mediated transcription in T cells. Nature. 2012;490(7421):543-6.
- Mitra S, Ring AM, Amarnath S, Spangler JB, Li P, Ju W, Fischer S, Oh J, Spolski R, Weiskopf K, Kohrt H, Foley JE, Rajagopalan S, Long EO, Fowler DH, Waldmann TA, Garcia KC, Leonard WJ. Interleukin-2 activity can be fine tuned with engineered receptor signaling clamps. Immunity. 2015;42(5):826-38.
- Li P, Mitra S, Spolski R, Oh J, Liao W, Tang Z, Mo F, Li X, West EE, Gromer D, Lin JX, Liu C, Ruan Y, Leonard WJ. STAT5-mediated chromatin interactions in superenhancers activate IL-2 highly inducible genes: Functional dissection of the Il2ra gene locus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017;114(46):12111-12119.
Related Scientific Focus Areas
Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Genetics and Genomics
This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 28, 2018