Interferon's Medical Applications
In 1986, interferon-alpha became the first interferon to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a viable therapy, in this case, for hairy-cell leukemia. (Interferons are used therapeutically by injecting them into the blood stream.) In 1988, this class of interferons was also approved for the treatment of genital warts, proving effective in nearly 70% of patients who do not respond to standard therapies. In that same year, it was approved for treatment of Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of cancer that appears frequently in patients suffering from AIDS. In 1991, interferon-alpha was approved for use in chronic hepatitis C, a contagious disease for which there was no reliable therapy. Interferon has been shown to eliminate the disease's symptoms and, perhaps, prevent relapse. Interferon-alpha is also used to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma and malignant melanoma, or skin cancer.
In 1993, another class of interferon, interferon-gamma, received FDA approval for the treatment of a form of multiple sclerosis characterized by the intermittent appearance and disappearance of symptoms. It has also been used to treat chronic granulomatous diseases, an inherited immune disorder in which white blood cells fail to kill bacterial infections, thus causing severe infections in the skin, liver, lungs, and bone. Interferon-gamma may also have therapeutic value in the treatment of leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection that is prevalent in parts of Africa, America, Europe, and Asia.
Although all of the disease fighting attributes of interferon demonstrated in the laboratory have not been attained in practice, continued research into interferons will continue to expand their medical applications. For example, all three major classes of interferons are under investigation for treating a variety of cancers. Also, biotechnological advances making genetic engineering easier and faster are making protein drugs like interferons more available for study and use. Using recombinant DNA technology, or gene splicing, genes that code for ineterferons are identified, cloned, and used for experimental studies and in making therapeutic quantities of protein. These modern DNA manipulation techniques have made possible the use of cell-signaling molecules like interferons as medicines. Earlier, available quantities of these molecules were too minute for practical use.
Another particular area of interest is the use of inter-ferons to enhance other therapies. For example, studies have shown that a combination of interferon-alpha and tamoxifen may be a more effective therapy for breast cancer than either used alone. Future studies will focus more on combining interferons with other drug therapies.
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David Petechuk Judyth Sassoon
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