Leukemia Treatment Interferon

Interferon therapy strengthens the immune system, encouraging the body’s natural defenses to target cancer cells and other threats. A natural protein produced by immune system cells, interferon is a treatment option for chronic myelogenous leukemia and hairy cell leukemia.

How Interferon Therapy Works

Three different types of interferon have been identified:

  • Interferon alpha
  • Interferon beta
  • Interferon gamma.

Synthetically produced interferon alpha is used to treat leukemia.

The exact mechanism of interferon treatment is unknown. Interferon therapy is thought to fight leukemia by both stimulating the immune system to target leukemic cells and interfering with leukemic cells’ ability to grow, or encouraging them to develop into healthy cells.

Interferon Treatment and Leukemia

Therapy with interferon may be offered to patients who aren’t suited for stem cell transplants. Interferon treatment may also be offered in combination with chemotherapy, depending on the individual patient’s needs.

Interferon treatment is usually administered by subcutaneous injection (an injection under the skin). The treatment can also be injected into veins or muscle tissue.

Interferon Side Effects

Possible side effects of interferon treatment include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Fevers or chills
  • Headaches
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Nausea
  • Poor concentration
  • Vomiting.

Some people undergoing therapy with interferon exhibit signs of depression or suicidal behavior. It’s unclear whether such behavior stems from interferon treatment or is a response to living with a serious disease. In either case, interferon therapy patients should be monitored closely for suicidal thoughts or depression.

Less common interferon side effects include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dry mouth and/or skin
  • Metallic taste
  • Pins and needles in extremities
  • Temporary hair loss or thinning.

Interferon side effects usually resolve as the body becomes accustomed to interferon. Side effects may return if interferon dosage increases, and will diminish after treatment.

Interferon Treatment Contraindications

Certain conditions and medications interact negatively with interferon treatment. Inform your doctor of any health conditions before beginning interferon therapy. Conditions of special concern include:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Bleeding problems
  • Blood circulation problems
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung disease
  • Seizures
  • Thyroid disease.

The safety of interferon therapy for pregnant or breastfeeding women has yet to be determined.

Patients should also discuss the possibility of interferon interacting with existing medication, especially drugs that cause sleepiness, such as:

  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Antihistamines
  • Anxiety medication
  • Narcotic pain relievers
  • Psychiatric medication
  • Sedatives
  • Sleep medication.

Report all prescription and over-the-counter drugs before starting therapy with interferon, as well as any vitamin supplements or herbal remedies.


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Health Communities. (2009). Leukemia treatment. Retrieved April 27, 2010, from http://www.oncologychannel.com/leukemias/treatment.shtml.

National Cancer Institute. (2006). Biological therapies for cancer: Questions and answers. Retrieved April 27, 2010, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/biological.

Ogbru, O. (2010). Interferons. Retrieved April 27, 2010, from http://www.medicinenet.com/interferon/article.htm.

Toulouse, B. (n.d.). Interferon therapy. Retrieved April 27, 2010, from http://www.hepcadvocacy.org/factsheets/Interferon.pdf.