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Interferons are immune system modifying drugs that may be used in the treatment of leukemia. They are not the first choice of treatment but they are useful when other modes of treatment do not work. However, like other drugs, these have some side effects.

Abnormal blood cells produced in the bone marrow develop into a cancerous disease called leukemia. The rapid increase in these abnormal blood cells reduce the function of normal blood cells, which later becomes a life-threatening situation. There are various types of leukemia, depending on the type of blood cells involved, and therapy differs for each type. Interferon treatment is not the first line of treatment for leukemia but it helps improve the body's defense against cancer cells, induces remission, and increases survival rates.

What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a type of cancer that involves the white blood cells as they are produced in the soft tissue of the bone (bone marrow). In this condition there is an abnormal growth and multiplication of white blood cells, of which there are two types (lymphocytes and myelocytes). This results in crowding out of the red blood cells and platelets in the blood, resulting in anemia, weakness, fever, joint pains, and bleeding tendencies.

Leukemia may be acute or chronic, depending on the rate of progression of the disease. The exact cause is unknown, but some risk factors include exposure to toxic chemicals, radiation, chemotherapy and smoking.

The goals of treatment in leukemia are to kill the cancer cells, to increase the supply of normal blood cells, and to boost one's immunity to cancer. Chemotherapy and high dose radiation therapy are often done to destroy cancer cells. A stem cell transplant may be done to increase the number of new cells, which will develop into normal blood cells. Biological therapy, on the other hand, involves the use of special drugs that stimulate your own immune system to fight cancer. There are various medicines used to boost the immune response and these include interferons.

How Interferons Work

Interferons are natural proteins that are produced by the immune system cells to fight viruses and cancer cells. Scientists have developed synthetic interferons that mimic the natural proteins in the body but in a much stronger way. Some of the diseases where various types of interferons are now being used include melanoma, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, and HPV infections. One type, interferon alpha, has been found to be helpful for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and for hairy cell leukemia (HCL). CML is common among adults who are in their 50s. HCL is a rare type of leukemia which is also more likely to occur in middle-aged adults.

Interferons were so named because they interfere with viral infection and in tumor cell activity.

It is currently not the first option for treatment of leukemia because there are other options (stem cell therapy and imatinib therapy), which can bring better results.

However, interferon injections are very useful when other types of biological treatments such as imatinib do not work, have stopped working, or cannot be tolerated by patients. It may also be used in patients who experiences recurrence of the disease after a bone marrow transplant. Recent studies also show that interferon may be combined with other drugs such as cytarabine to improve over-all survival in patients with leukemia.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Talpaz M, Hehlmann R, Quintas-Cardama A, et al. Re-emergence of interferon-α in the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. Leukemia 2013. 27, 803-812.
  • WebMD. Leukemia-Topic Overview.
  • Jonasch E and Haluska F. Interferon in Oncological Practice: Review of Interferon Biology, Clinical Applications, and Toxicities. The Oncologist February 2001 vol. 6 no. 1 34-55.
  • Kolibaba,K and Druker,B. Current Status of Treatment for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. Medscape.
  • Stone, R. Optimizing Treatment of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia: A Rational Approach. The Oncologist June 2004 vol. 9 no. 3 259-270.
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