A group of drugs that inhibit the multiplication of viruses and also act against certain tumours
Interferons are a group of proteins produced naturally by the body’s immune system in response to viral infections and certain other challenges, such as tumours. Synthetic versions that mimic the action of these natural interferons are used as drugs to treat a number of disorders. There are three main types of synthetic interferon: alfa, beta, and gamma. Peginterferon alfa is a modified form of interferon alfa that remains in the blood for longer.
Interferon alfa is used in the treatment of some types of cancer, such as certain lymphomas and leukaemias, malignant melanoma, multiple myeloma, carcinoid tumours (a type of tumour that affects the intestines or bronchus), AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma, and some kidney tumours. Interferon alfa or peginterferon alfa may be used in the treatment of chronic hepatitis B and C (see Chronic hepatitis).
How do they work?
Interferons work in several ways. They bind to body cells and cause them to produce antiviral proteins; they stimulate certain types of white blood cell (which form part of the body’s immune system) to resist viral infection and to destroy virus-infected cells; and they slow down the multiplication of cancerous cells.
Interferon drugs are given only by injection, and in most cases the drugs can be self-administered. Your doctor or nurse will teach you how to inject yourself.
What are the side effects?
The most common side effects of interferon drugs are loss of appetite; nausea; a flu-like syndrome in which you may have a fever, aches, and a headache; tiredness; and lethargy. Less commonly, there may be redness and swelling at the injection site; tingling in the hands and feet; and depression. Interferons may also produce other adverse effects, including liver, kidney, and heart and circulatory problems. If you are taking an interferon drug, your doctor will arrange for regular tests to monitor changes in your body functions.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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