Interferons are proteins that can be used to treat MPDs.
Interferons occur naturally in our bodies and help us to fight infection. They are proteins that 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 disorders: polycythaemia vera (PV), essential thrombocythaemia (ET) and myelofibrosis (MF).
Interferon is made by a variety of drug companies and is known under several brand names. The most common are:
Pegylated interferon (such as Pegasys® and Pegintron®) is a slow-releasing interferon that is currently used only in research and in special cases. Researchers are assessing this drug to determine how well it controls myeloproliferative disorders. Please download our interferon leaflet from the leaflet page for detailed information on the types of interferon along with dosage.
Interferons are given by injection just under the skin. Interferon alpha is usually given up to five times a week and pegylated interferon once a week.
Interferon is a substance which occurs naturally in our bodies. 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. Pegylated interferon works the same way as interferon but is longer-acting.
Interferon is sometimes the best choice of treatment. Interferon is:
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 MPDs.
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:
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 for more information about side effects.
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.
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.
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 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.
Yes. We recommend a normal healthy diet and drinking plenty of water.
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 MPD. Please ask your nurse or doctor if you require more information regarding alcohol consumption.
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.
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 benefits against the risk. Your haematologist and maternity team can help you make this decision.
Your doctor, specially trained nurse, hospital pharmacist or sometimes your GP will prescribe your medication.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’d like more information you can download our leaflets about MPD medications.
Many people who give interferon a try find that they don't experience many side effects.