Medical Definition of Interferon

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Reviewed on 12/12/2018

Interferon: A naturally occurring substance that interferes with the ability of viruses to reproduce. Interferon also boosts the immune system.

There are a number of different interferons. They fall into three main classes : alpha, beta, and gamma. All are proteins (lymphokines) normally produced by the body in response to infection. The interferons have been synthesized using recombinant DNA technology.

The goal of interferon therapy is to eradicate a virus from an infected person. Using interferon, for example, to eradicate the hepatitis B or C virus will, it is hoped, prevent the future development of cirrhosis and cancer of the liver. This may require months and even years of interferon treatment and may not be effective in many patients.

In therapeutic doses, interferon can be hard to tolerate because of the side-effects, with flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, headache and aches and, less regularly, low thyroid activity, arthritis, low platelet count and depression which can attain suicidal proportions.

Interferon was discovered in 1957 by the Alick Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann (who did not receive the Nobel Prize for their discovery). Interferon is so named because of its ability to interfere with virus reproduction.

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Reviewed on 12/12/2018