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Whenever harmful microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria and parasites enter the body, the immune system reacts by producing special proteins called interferons. This process is called the interferon response. It is the body’s response to infection that in turn triggers the production of other cells that fight the invading microbial pathogens, strengthening the immune system’s defensive capabilities.
These cells “interfere” with the replication process of harmful viruses and bacteria, helping the body to effectively fight off the infection. In some people, the interferon response does not work as well because of some defect or problem in their immune system. To boost a patient's immune system, they may be given interferon therapy, which involves receiving infusions of artificially produced interferons under the close supervision of medical personnel.
Interferons are a special kind of protein collectively called cytokines, which are mainly produced by white blood cells called leukocytes. The cell-secreted proteins or cytokines are only produced in the presence of an infection. If there are cytokines and interferons circulating in the body when there is no need for them, when there is no ongoing infection, they can interfere with essential processes such as the production of red blood cells. The presence of cytokines and other immunological cells also results in some uncomfortable symptoms felt by the person. They may experience fever, inflammation, body aches, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms.
There are various kinds of interferons that make up the body’s interferon response. There are Type I, Type II, and Type III interferons. Type I interferons are further subdivided into alpha interferons, beta interferons and gamma interferons. Type II interferons mainly refer to delta interferons. Type III interferons are still being studied; medical research may one day reveal how they can be used for medical purposes, in the same manner that Type I and Type II interferons are used.
Interferon therapy is an important medical procedure to fight certain forms of cancer. The interferon response helps destroy typical cells in tumors and cancerous growths. However, interferon therapy also produces unpleasant side effects such as nausea, fatigue and irritability, much like other forms of chemotherapy.
Apart from fighting cancers and tumors, interferon therapy uses the interferon response in the treatment of hepatitis B and C, warts, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases. Low doses of interferon also help relieve common illnesses like colds and flu. Synthetic interferon is often administered through injections.