This information is about the use of interferon alpha (IntronA®, Roferon–A® - pronounced in-ter-fear-ron) as a treatment for people with cancer.
Interferon is used as a treatment for some types of cancer. These include cancer of the Kidney, malignant melanoma, multiple myeloma , carcinoid tumours and some types of lymphoma and leukaemia. Interferon is also used to treat diseases other than cancer.
- How does it work ?
- What is interferon?
- What does it look like?
- How is it given?
- Side effects
Interferon alpha is a manmade copy of a substance that the body makes naturally. The body makes interferon as part of the immune response. This is when the body reacts to anything it recognises as ´foreign´ or abnormal, for example infection or cancer cells.
Interferon works in several ways. It directly interferes with how cells grow and multiply. And it stimulates the immune system by encouraging immune system cells, such as killer T cells, to attack cancer cells. It also encourages cancer cells to produce chemicals that attract the immune system cells.
T lymphocytes produce interferon when they are exposed to viruses or tumors. Interferons attach to specific receptors on the surfaces of most cells in the body, and they start a series of immune cell responses.
Cytokines are substances released from activated lymphocytes and includes interferons and interleukins. There are 2 subypes, IFN beta, IFN gamma.
Interferon alpha is a white powder that forms a clear, straw – colorued liquid when mixed with water. It can also be supplied ready-diluted, in small glass vials (bottles), pre-filled syringes and special injection-pen devices.
Interferon is given as an injection just under the skin, usually in the thigh or abdomen. You or a relative can be taught how to give these injections, or a nurse may visit you so that you can have your treatment at home. Your doctor or specialist nurse will explain how often you will be given the drug and how long the treatment course will last. This varies from person to person, depending on their illness.
Interferon should be kept in a refrigerator.
The amount of interferon that occurs naturally in the body is very small. When interferon injections are given, the amount in the body increases greatly. For this reason it causes side effects, even though it is a naturally occurring substance. The side effects of interferon are not usually severe, however. People react to drugs in different ways, so it is not possible to predict who is going to have side effects or which they will have. The most common side effects are listed below:
Flu-like symptoms: These include a high temperature, chills and muscle and joint pains. They may start two to three hours after the drug is given, but they do not last long. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to reduce these side effects. After the first injection these symptoms may be quite severe, but they usually become much less of a problem with further injections. Some people find it helpful to have their interferon before going to bed at night so that the side effects are less noticeable.
Fatigue (a feeling of tiredness and having no energy): Fatigue can be a problem and sometimes it worsens over the course of injections. It is important to allow yourself plenty of time to rest. Tiredness can affect many aspects of your life.
Feeling sick, vomiting and loss of appetite; is uncommon. Your doctor can prescribe medicine to help.
Skin irritation may occur at the injection site: This can be reduced by giving the injections in different places. Sometimes a more widespread rash can occur as a result of an allergic reaction.
Dizziness: Dizziness sometimes occurs. It is important to report this to your doctor.
Depression and emotional changes: Interferon can sometimes make people feel depressed. If you feel very low while you are taking it, let your doctor know. Pins and needles in the hands and toes: Let your doctor know at your next appointment if this happens.
Hair loss: Occasionally hair may be lost but usually the hair just thins. Hair Loss is temporary and the hair will regrow once the treatment has finished.
Fertility: Interferon may affect your ability to have children. In women it may affect the menstrual cycle and in men there may be a lowered sperm count. These effects may be temporary but for some people can be permanent.
Temporary reduction in the production of blood cells by the bone marrow: This reduces the number of cells in the blood and can make you more vulnerable to infection, bleeding or bruising. It can also lead to anaemia (a lack of red blood cells). It is important to report any signs of bleeding, bruising or infection to your doctor. The bone marrow will return to normal when the treatment is stopped.
Effects on circulation: Interferon may alter the rhythm of the heart or affect your blood pressure, but this will go back to normal when the drug is stopped.
The doctors and nurses looking after you will monitor you closely during your treatment. You will probably be asked to give regular samples of your blood and/or urine. They will also take your temperature, pulse and blood pressure. These tests help to monitor the effects of the interferon on your body. If you are having your injections at home, you may need to attend regular outpatient appointments at your hospital so that the tests can be carried out.
- Macmillan Cancer Support website Accessed December 2008.
- U.S. Food and drug administration website Accessed December 2008.
- Oncology Nursing Society Accessed January 2009.
- Wilkes, G. & Barton Burke, M. (2007), Oncology Nursing Drug Handbook, Jones & Bartlett publishers.