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Interferons are compounds produced by the body that perform functions related to the immune system, which is the body’s defense against invading pathogens, aberrant cells that may become cancerous, viral infections, or other pathological states. Recombinant interferon refers to interferon compounds that are produced by recombinant techniques. In recombinant technology, a gene of interest is placed into the genome of a system, such as a cell culture or a specific animal, in which manipulation can lead to increased production of the gene product of interest. The final protein product is then isolated and used for its intended purposes.
The ability of interferons to help the body’s immune response means that recombinant interferon is used to treat many human diseases that involve abnormal immune function. Using recombinant interferon is therefore often referred to as immunotherapy. Recombinant interferon can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including specific cancers or leukemias, HIV-associated disorders, warts, and hepatitis.
Recombinant interferon does not actually kill the aberrant cells or pathogens on its own, but rather induces the immune system to do so. Three different types of interferons may be used for therapy, and these are known as alpha, beta, and gamma. Subtle differences also exist within these three subtypes, and numbers and letters, such as interferon alpha 2a and 2b, usually indicate these. Due to the fact that these different interferons have distinct functions in the body, specific diseases respond best to a certain type of interferon.
An example of how different interferons affect the body differently is the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) with interferon therapy. MS is an autoimmune disease, which refers to a disease in which the immune system overreacts and begins to attack the body’s own tissues. For this reason, it would seem that compounds that stimulate the immune system would be the last line of treatment for a disease like MS. Surprisingly, researchers discovered that MS appears to be aggravated by high production of the gamma form of interferon, whereas the beta form of interferon represses the production of the gamma form. This has led to the use of interferon beta as therapy for MS.
Before recombinant technologies were widely available, interferon was very difficult to obtain. The wide use of recombinant technologies, however, has allowed for interferon to be produced in huge quantities by cells in culture. Despite this wide production, interferon related therapies are usually quite expensive.
Several side effects are associated with recombinant interferon. The most common dosing method of recombinant interferon is via injection, and people may experience swelling or even slight necrosis, or cell death, at the site of injection. Due to the fact that interferons so strongly affect the immune system, immune responses are a fairly common side effect, and may involve a fever, chills, and other unpleasant flu symptoms. There might be an association between recombinant interferon therapy and depression or suicidal thoughts, and people are urged to pay attention to their psychological state while they take this therapy.