Interferon

Pharmacy Author: Omudhome Ogbru, PharmD
Medical and Pharmacy Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

What are interferons and how do they work?

Interferons are a family of naturally-occurring proteins that are made and secreted by cells of the immune system (for example, white blood cells, natural killer cells, fibroblasts, and epithelial cells). Three classes of interferons have been identified:

  1. alpha,

  2. beta, and

  3. gamma.

Each class has many effects, though their effects overlap. Commercially available interferons are human interferons manufactured using recombinant DNA technology. The mechanism of action of interferon is complex and is not well understood. Interferons modulate the response of the immune system to viruses, bacteria, cancer, and other foreign substances that invade the body. Interferons do not directly kill viral or cancerous cells; they boost the immune system response and reduce the growth of cancer cells by regulating the action of several genes that control the secretion of numerous cellular proteins that affect growth.

For what conditions are interferons used?

Since interferons enhance the immune system in many ways, they are used for many diseases that involve the immune system. For example:

  • Interferon alfa-2a (Roferon-A) is FDA-approved to treat hairy cell leukemia, AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma, and chronic myelogenous leukemia.

  • Interferon alfa-2b is approved for the treatment of hairy cell leukemia, malignant melanoma, condylomata acuminata, AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma, chronic hepatitis C, and chronic hepatitis B.

  • Ribavirin combined with interferon alfa-2b, interferon alfacon-1 (Infergen), pegylated interferon alfa-2b, or pegylated interferon alpha-2a, all are approved for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C.

  • Interferon beta-1b (Betaseron) and interferon beta-1a (Avonex) are approved for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

  • Interferon alfa-n3 (Alferon-N) is approved for the treatment of genital and perianal warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

  • Interferon gamma-1B (Actimmune) is approved for the treatment of chronic granulomatous disease, and severe, malignant osteopetrosis.

Are there any differences among the different types of interferons?

Although interferons are very similar they affect the body differently. Therefore, different interferons are used for different conditions. Interferon alphas are used for treating cancers and viral infections; interferon betas are used for treating multiple sclerosis; and interferon gamma is used for treating chronic granulomatous disease.

What are the side effects of interferons?

Flu-like symptoms following each injection (fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and pains, malaise) occur with all of the interferons. These symptoms vary from mild to severe and occur in up to half of all patients. The symptoms tend to diminish with repeated injections and may be managed with analgesics such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl).




Report Problems to the Food and Drug Administration

You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit the FDA MedWatch website or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

Pill Finder Tool

Need help identifying pills and medications?
Use the pill identifier tool on RxList.


Back to Medications Index

STAY INFORMED

Get the Latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox!