Interferon-α in Malignant and Viral Diseases: A Review

Robert T. Dorr

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations


In the 35 years since the discovery of interferon, significant biological activity has been described for interferon-α (IFNα) in various cancers, paticularly haematological malignancies such as hairy cell leukaemia and chronic myelogenous leukaemia. Except for localised therapy in bladder and ovarian cancer, activity against most solid tumours has been disappointing. Other notable exceptions include Kaposi’s sarcoma, renal cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma, tumours known to be susceptible to immunological attack. More recently, broad spectrum antiviral activity has been demonstrated for both recombinant and naturally occurring IFNα. Hepatitis C is responsive to IFNα in about 40% of patients, but long term remissions are rare. In contrast, long term suppression of hepatitis B is common following IFNα therapy. Both diseases respond in a dose proportional fashion, with daily doses of 5 million units (MU) significantly more effective than lower doses. The mechanism of action in viral diseases involves the expression of unique antiviral proteins such as endonuclease and 2′-5′-oligoadenylate synthetase which enhance the destruction of viral RNA. General cellular protein synthesis is also inhibited, including cytochrome P450 enzymes. This forms the basis for potential drug interactions, with IFNα slowing the clearance of highly metabolised drugs such as theophylline. As an antitumour agent, the mechanism of action of IFNα is unclear, particularly in haematological cancers. In melanoma and renal cell carcinoma, antitumour effects may be mediated by augmented immune responses including activation of natural killer lymphocytes and enhanced expression of cell surface antigens (e.g. MHC I and II). Conversely, antibody formation to recombinant IFNα may result in a loss of activity. This has been observed in both renal cell cancer and hepatitis B and C. The elimination half-life of IFNα is short, 4 to 5 hours, but biological activity extends for 2 to 3 days after administration, which facilitates daily or thrice weekly administration. Clearance of IFNα is mediated by catabolism in the renal tubules; no intact drug is excreted in the urine. It is probable that the antiviral indications of IFNα will expand as the agent is more clearly recognised as a primary endogenous defence against various viral conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)177-211
Number of pages35
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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