Erythropoietin (EPO) is a glycoprotein mainly produced by the adult kidney in response to hypoxia and is the crucial regulator of red blood cell production. EPO receptors (EPORs), however, are not confined to erythroid cells, but are expressed by many organs including the heart, brain, retina, pancreas, and kidney, where they mediate EPO-induced, erythropoiesis-independent, tissue-protective effects. Some of these tissues do also produce and locally release small amounts of EPO in response to organ injury as a mechanism of self-repair.
Growing evidence shows that EPO possesses also important immune modulating effects. Monocytes can produce EPO and autocrine EPO/EPOR signaling in these cells is crucial in maintaining immunological self-tolerance. New data in mice and humans also indicate that EPO has a direct inhibitory effect on effector/memory T cells, while it promotes formation of regulatory T cells.
This review examines the non-erythropoietic effects of EPO, with a special emphasis on its modulating activity on innate immune cells and T cells and on how it affects transplant outcomes.