Interferons: Uses, most common brand names, and safety information
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Interferons were discovered in the late 1950s but it took over 20 years for the research to show they stimulate your immune system to prevent viral infections as well as slow the growth of cancer. In 1986, the first synthetic interferon-alpha came into use to treat certain types of cancer. It was the first interferon to be produced using recombinant DNA technology and is now used for viral infections such as chronic hepatitis C and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
The list below includes interferons approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
List of interferons
Intron A (interferon alfa-2b)
Intron A is indicated to treat hairy cell leukemia, malignant melanoma, and follicular lymphoma.
Actimmune (interferon gamma 1b)
Actimmune is indicated to treat chronic granulomatous disease and malignant osteopetrosis.
Avonex (interferon beta 1a)
Avonex is indicated to treat multiple sclerosis.
Rebif (interferon beta 1a)
Rebif is indicated to treat multiple sclerosis.
Betaseron (interferon beta 1b)
Betaseron is indicated to treat multiple sclerosis.
Extavia (interferon beta 1b)
Extavia is indicated to treat multiple sclerosis.
Pegasys (peginterferon alfa 2a)
Pegasys is indicated to treat chronic hepatitis B and C.
Pegasys ProClick (peginterferon alfa 2a)
Pegasys ProClick is indicated to treat chronic hepatitis B and C.
PEG Intron (peginterferon alfa 2b)
PEG-Intron is indicated to treat chronic hepatitis C.
Besremi (ropeginterferon alfa 2b)
Besremi is indicated to treat polycythemia vera.
Plegridy (peginterferon beta 1a)
Plegridy is indicated to treat multiple sclerosis.
What are interferons?
Inflammation is an immune response to pathogens, infected cells, or irritants that helps us survive during infection and injury. When your body recognizes an infection, it sends signals to inflammatory cells such as neutrophils and macrophages, which produce small proteins called cytokines. Interferons (IFNs) are a type of cytokine released by infected or damaged cells. They were named for the way they “interfere” with viral replication to protect your body from virus infections.
There are 3 main types of interferons: interferon-alpha (IFN-α), interferon-beta (IFN-β), and interferon-gamma (IFN-γ). Interferon-alpha and beta belong to the type I IFN subclass and gamma belongs to the type II IFN subclass. More recently, there has been the discovery of type III IFNs which include interferon-lambda.
How do interferons work?
Cells in our immune system have several different functions to help fight infectious diseases and other inflammatory conditions. Macrophages and natural killer cells help kill microbes and cancer cells. B-lymphocytes (B-cells) and T-lymphocytes (T-cells) produce antibodies that work along with these immune cells in response to foreign antigens. To help regulate these processes, your body uses cytokines to relay messages between different types of cells telling them what actions to take. This is known as a signaling pathway. Interferons are one type of cytokine that works alongside our immune system’s signaling pathway. They are made in your body by white blood cells and other cells. Interferons inhibit the functions of B-cells and T-cells and also disrupt the protein synthesis of viruses.
What conditions are interferons used to treat?
Interferons are used to treat a variety of conditions based on their immune system and antiviral activity, including:
- Chronic hepatitis C (commonly used in combination with ribavirin)
- Hepatitis B
- Multiple sclerosis
- Hairy cell leukemia
- AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Malignant melanoma
- Chronic granulomatous disease
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
- Genital warts
Are interferons safe?
The use of interferons is relatively safe and effective when taken as prescribed. Make sure your doctor is aware of the prescription drugs, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, vitamins, and herbal supplements you take. Before beginning treatment with interferons, tell your doctor if you have any of the following medical conditions:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Mental health disorders
- Thyroid disease
- Heart disease
- Lung disease
What are some common side effects of interferons?
The adverse effects you experience from interferons will depend on several factors including the medication and dose. Some common adverse effects include:
- Kidney impairment
- Liver impairment
- Injection site reactions
- Increased risk of heart failure or arrhythmias
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Bone marrow disorders
- Severe hypersensitivity reactions
- Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
- Rash or other skin reactions
- Increased risk of infections (fever, chills, muscle aches)
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Flu-like symptoms
- Eye or vision problems
This is not a complete list of side effects and we encourage you to consult with your healthcare provider for medical advice about any possible side effects.
Who should not take interferons?
If you have the following conditions you should not take interferons:
- Thyroid disease
- Bone marrow suppression
- Decreased levels of platelets or white blood cells
- Mental health problems
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Chronic alcohol abuse
- Heart failure
- Liver or kidney problems
- Seizure disorder
What triggers the production of interferons?
Interferons are small proteins produced by several cells in your body’s inflammatory response to pathogens or cytokines. This is typically due to infections or injury.
Can you take interferons while you are pregnant or breastfeeding?
There is limited data on the use of interferons in pregnant women or during lactation. Interferon use is generally not recommended unless the benefits outweigh the risks. You should always discuss the risks and benefits of any medication with your healthcare professional if you are pregnant, plan on becoming pregnant, or are breastfeeding.
How much do interferons cost?
Interferons are very expensive with an average cost of around $10,000 per year.
You can purchase interferons for $49 per month from NiceRx if eligible for assistance. Prices at the pharmacy vary by location, strength, and quantity, as well as your insurance status.
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