Interferon alfa


Generic Name Brand Name
interferon alfa-2b Intron A

Interferon is usually given as a shot under the skin.

How It Works

Interferon is a man-made copy of a protein that is produced by the body in response to infection. It helps the immune system fight disease and may slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. It can make cancer cells too weak to protect themselves from the immune system.

Why It Is Used

Interferon is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), hairy cell leukemia, melanoma that has spread to the lymph nodes, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, kidney cancer, and Kaposi's sarcoma. It also is used to treat diseases other than cancer.

Interferon is the recommended treatment for melanomas that are as thin as 1 mm (0.2 in.), or that have spread to lymph glands nearby.

How Well It Works

Research shows that interferon is better than busulfan or hydroxyurea in treating CML. But interferon also causes more side effects.1

The use of interferon may increase the survival rate of some people with stage IIB and stage III melanoma.2

Side Effects

Side effects of treatment with interferon are common and may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, muscle aches, fever, chills, and fatigue. You may be able to feel better if you take the drug at bedtime along with a pain reliever such as acetaminophen (for example, Tylenol).
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Irritability.
  • Insomnia.
  • Depression.
  • Low blood counts, which may increase your risk of infection or bleeding.

Rare side effects include:

  • Confusion.
  • Excessive amounts of protein in the urine.
  • Hair loss.
  • Suicidal behavior.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Interferon should be used only under the supervision of a medical oncologist or hematologist. When interferon is used for chronic viral hepatitis, a hepatologist or gastroenterologist is most likely to supervise treatment.

Interferon may be combined with cytarabine or imatinib to treat CML. It can also be used with other drugs to treat melanoma or kidney cancer.

Clinical trials are studying the use of interferon for melanoma that has spread or come back.

Interferon can cause birth defects. Do not use this medicine if you are pregnant or wish to become pregnant or to father a child while you are taking it.

Do not use alcohol or illegal drugs while you are being treated with interferon.

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  1. Rabinowitz I, Larson, RS (2004): Chronic myeloid leukemia. In JP Greer et al., eds., Wintrobe's Clinical Hematology, 11th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2235-2258. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  2. Kirkwood JM, et al. (2004). A pooled analysis of Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group and intergroup trials of adjuvant high-dose interferon for melanoma. Clinical Cancer Research, 10(5): 1670–1677.

Last Updated: November 26, 2008

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