Interferon Therapy for Chronic Myeloid Leukemia

Interferons are a family of substances naturally made by our immune system. Interferon-alpha is the type most often used in treating chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). This substance reduces the growth and division of leukemia cells. Interferon was once considered the best treatment for CML, but imatinib (Gleevec®) was shown to be better. Now, the tyrosine kinase inhibitors are the mainstay of treatment and interferon is rarely used.

To treat CML, this drug is most often given as a daily injection under the skin. It may also be injected into a muscle or vein. To treat CML, interferon is given for several years.

Interferon can cause significant side effects. These include "flu-like" symptoms like muscle aches, bone pain, fever, headaches, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Patients taking this drug may have problems thinking and concentrating. Interferon can also lower blood cell counts. These effects continue as long as the drug is used, but can become easier to tolerate over time. They do improve after the drug is stopped. Still, some patients find it hard to deal with these side effects every day and may need to stop treatment because of them.

For more information about drugs that use the immune system, see Immunotherapy.

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Last Medical Review: February 24, 2015 Last Revised: February 22, 2016

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