Interferon alpha

Interferons are protein based drugs that can be used to treat MPNs.

Interferons occur naturally in our bodies and help us to fight infection. They can also be given as medications and are used to treat many types of disorders. Interferons are used to treat all three main types of myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs): polycythaemia vera (PV), essential thrombocythaemia (ET) and myelofibrosis (MF).

Types of interferon

Interferon is made by a variety of drug companies and is known under several brand names according to the manufacturer. The most common brand names for interferon are: Roferon–A®, IntronA®, Pegintron® and  PEGASYS®.

Roferon-A® and IntronA® are shorter acting interferons which are often given several times a week. PEGASYS® and Pegintron® are slower release longer acting formulations which are injected only once a week and sometimes less often. This less frequent injection may be an advantage with side effects, but this has never been proved in any clinical studies.

Interferon alpha comes in a variety of packages and formulas.  The  most common are:

  • Single-dose syringe - A syringe containing the exact amount of drug required for one injection.
  • Multi-dose vial - A glass vial containing multiple doses of interferon liquid. You will be required to draw up a specific amount of fluid  into a syringe and administer this dose to yourself.
  • Multi-dose injection pen - An injection pen containing a cartridge with multiple doses of interferon. The pen is set to inject the required dose each time.
Please download our interferon leaflet from the leaflet page for detailed information on the taking this drug what to expect and tips for managing side effects.

Watch the short video about Alisia's experience of Interferon and injecting.

How it works

Our immune system produces interferon to help fight viruses, bacteria and tumours. When given as a medication, interferon suppresses production of blood cells and reduces spleen size. In some people it may also reduce bone marrow fibrosis and itching.

Interferon alpha is a man-made copy of naturally occuring interferon. The drug increases interferon levels in your body, thus suppressing over production of blood cells. Peginterferon works the same way but is a longer acting form of inteferon alpha.

Why take this drug

In some instances interferon is considered the best choice of treatment. Interferon is:

  • Safe to take if you plan to become pregnant
  • Safe if you are currently pregnant
  • Safe if you want to father a child
  • Perhaps the first choice of treatment for younger people with MPNs
  • An option if hydroxycarbamide therapy stops working for you
  • An option if you have side effects with other treatments
Interferon alpha is taken by injection and it has some side effects so it is not the first choice of therapy for most people with MPNs.

Common side effects

Some people may not tolerate the side effects they experience with interferon in fact 20% to 30% of people who begin this treatment eventually stop taking the drug most often because they don’t tolerate the side effects.

On the other hand many people report that the side effects they experience when first taking the drug become more tolerable over time. It can be worth giving interferon therapy a try, especially if you suffer from side effects with other treatments or if those treatments are not controlling your blood counts.

Some side effects are more common than others. The most common side effects are:

  • Flu-like feelings, reduced appetite, shivers and fatigue
  • Reduced white cell counts
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Diarrhoea
It is important that you inform your doctor or nurse if you are experiencing any of the side effects described above, no matter how mild they may be. There are often ways of overcoming side effects or reducing them to a tolerable level. Complementary therapies and ibuprofen* can be very helpful, talk with your haematologist for ideas. Please also refer to our interferon leaflet or more information about side effects.

* Remember that if you take aspirin, you should not take ibuprofen or related drugs known as non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) at the same time. Check with your pharmacist or GP. 

Interferon FAQs

Will I need follow up? You will need more frequent blood tests during the first weeks of treatment to determine how your body is responding to the medication.  Once your body has adjusted to the medication you will need less frequent checks.  Your kidney, thyroid and liver function may also be checked.

Can I take other medications while taking interferon? Whenever you take interferon (or in fact any medication) it is important to inform your medical advisors about all other medications you are taking: this includes medicines prescribed for you as well as any vitamins, herbal supplements or remedies bought in chemists. Always provide the names of these medications and remedies to the hospital doctors, GPs, nurses and pharmacists who are treating you, prescribing additional medications or giving you advice. It can be very helpful to carry a list of the names and dosages of all your medicines to show to your doctor or nurse at appointments. Some medicines may interact with interferon or peginterferon, including drugs for asthma and blood-thinners. Please see our interferon leaflet for more details, and check with your haematologist and other medical professionals who are treating you.

What if I have other medical conditions? All medications have potential risks and side effects. Interferon alpha should be used with caution (if at all) if you have any of several conditions including thyroid, kidney and liver problems, epilepsy, auto-immune disorders, hepatitis C, diabetes or if you are HIV positive. It is essential to give your haematologist the full details of your medical history and to discuss any questions you have about other conditions.

Can I eat and drink normally? Yes. We recommend a normal healthy diet and drinking plenty of water.

Can I drink alcohol? While it is safe to drink alcohol in moderation when you are taking interferon, we recommend you do not exceed the recommended weekly limits of a maximum of 21 units of alcohol per week for a man and a maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week for a woman.  Alcohol can cause dehydration and it is important to avoid becoming dehydrated if you have an MPN. Please ask your nurse or doctor if you require more information regarding alcohol consumption.

What if I want to have a child? It is safe to conceive or father a child whilst taking interferon. We always recommend you discuss any plans you have to try to conceive with your doctor or nurse and inform him or her as soon as you find out you or your partner is pregnant.

Can I breastfeed while taking interferon? There is evidence to show that interferon transfers into the breast milk in small amounts, but there are no reports of adverse effects on babies. The decision to breastfeed should be made by balancing the benefits against the risk. Your haematologist and maternity team can help you make this decision.

Who will prescribe interferon for me? Your doctor, specially trained nurse, hospital pharmacist or sometimes your GP will prescribe your medication.

Can I drive? You may find that when you begin taking interferon that your ability to drive and operate machinery is affected. We recommend when you begin taking this medication that you wait to see how you react before deciding if you are able to drive.  If you are in any way feeling tired or fatigued do not drive and please discuss this with your doctor or nurse.

Can I travel while taking interferon? Yes! We recommend you discuss all travel plans with your nurse or doctor prior to travelling. Ensure you have suitable travel insurance and enough of your medication to take with you. Most airline companies require a covering letter from your doctor to take injections on board, therefore we advise you check when you book your flight. Keep your injections in your hand luggage, as the temperature of the hold may not be appropriate. You will need to ensure your interferon is stored at the correct temperature (see chart in our interferon leaflet on storing interferon). One way of keeping your interferon cold is to carry it in a cold bag with a cold pack, however you need to ensure you do not freeze it. Some airlines may offer to refrigerate it for you, ask as you go on board.

How do I dispose of my sharps bin once it is full? Please ensure that full sharps bins are properly closed. Return full bins to the hospital or surgery which provided it to you.  Do not use a bag or any other container apart from a sharps bin to return used syringes, this is dangerous and may not be accepted. Also remember to return any unused medication and syringes to your local pharmacy or hospital and never dispose of medication or syringes whether new or old in rubbish bins or flush down the toilet.

Can I have vaccinations such as the flu jab? It is always advisable to consult your doctor or nurse prior to having a vaccination. Your medical team will check your overall health and immune system status prior to vaccination to ensure that vaccination is safe for you.

More information

If you’d like more information you can download our leaflets about MPN medications.