Although interferon-λ [also known as type III interferon or interleukin-28 (IL-28)/IL-29] restricts infection by several viruses, its inhibitory mechanism has remained uncertain. We used recombinant interferon-λ and mice lacking the interferon-λ receptor (IFNLR1) to evaluate the effect of interferon-λ on infection with West Nile virus, an encephalitic flavivirus. Cell culture studies in mouse keratinocytes and dendritic cells showed no direct antiviral effect of exogenous interferon-λ, even though expression of interferon-stimulated genes was induced. We observed no differences in West Nile virus burden between wild-type and Ifnlr1-/- mice in the draining lymph nodes, spleen, or blood. We detected increased West Nile virus infection in the brain and spinal cord of Ifnlr1-/- mice, yet this was not associated with a direct antiviral effect in mouse neurons. Instead, we observed an increase in blood-brain barrier permeability in Ifnlr1-/- mice. Treatment of mice with pegylated interferon-λ2 resulted in decreased blood-brain barrier permeability, reduced West Nile virus infection in the brain without affecting viremia, and improved survival against lethal virus challenge. An in vitro model of the blood-brain barrier showed that interferon-λ signaling in mouse brain microvascular endothelial cells increased transendothelial electrical resistance, decreased virus movement across the barrier, and modulated tight junction protein localization in a protein synthesis- and signal transducer and activator of transcription 1 (STAT1)-independent manner. Our data establish an indirect antiviral function of interferon-λ in which noncanonical signaling through IFNLR1 tightens the blood-brain barrier and restricts viral neuroinvasion and pathogenesis.
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