Since their initial description in 1957, the interferons (IFNs) have been increasingly used to treat a wide array of diseases. Acute adverse effects, i.e. ‘flu-like’ syndromes, hypo- or hypertension, tachycardia, headache, myalgias and gastrointestinal disorders, occur within the first hour or day after starting treatment. They are seldom treatment-limiting and are easily manageable.
Sub-acute and chronic effects develop after several days, usually within 2 and 4 weeks of therapy. The most typical is neurological toxicity, including fatigue/asthenia, and behavioural and cognitive changes. Such symptoms may seriously impair quality of life and result in treatment discontinuation. Seizures have seldom been described. Other infrequent central nervous system adverse effects include vertigo, cramp and oculomotor nerve paralysis. Distal paraesthesias and peripheral neuropathy have been reported.
IFN-associated autoimmunity is quite rare but a matter of concern. Biological or clinical manifestations usually require several months to become apparent. Autoantibodies have been shown to develop in most patients but have been inconsistently associated with clinical symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid-like arthritis and thyroiditis. Both hypo- and hyperthyroidism have been described but are usually reversible. Other infrequent autoimmune reactions include diabetes, pemphigus and worsening of multiple sclerosis. Although several patients present with a pre-existing autoimmune disorder, no predisposing factor has been clearly established.
While hypotension and tachycardia are the most frequent acute cardiovascular complications, a few additional cases of cardiac arrhythmias and myocardial ischaemia have been reported after a short course or several weeks of treatment. These latter complications do not appear to be dose-dependent or age-related. Isolated cases of congestive heart failure have also been described.
Mild proteinuria has been observed in 15 to 25% of patients, but acute renal toxicity is uncommon. A transient rise in serum aminotransferase levels is frequently noted during the first stage of therapy, especially in patients receiving the highest dosages. Direct hepatotoxicity is extremely rare. Autoimmune hepatitis, which is ill-diagnosed as chronic viral hepatitis, and de novo induction of autoimmune hepatitis, account for the majority of liver diseases.
Haematotoxicity is relatively common but mild to moderate, and develops gradually during the first weeks of treatment. Neutropenia is the most common haematological toxicity, but is usually not dose-limiting and resolves rapidly upon drug discontinuation. Myelosuppression, autoimmune and immune allergic haemolytic anaemias and thrombocytopenias have seldom been described.
Cutaneous adverse effects comprised nonspecific erythema and hair loss and, less frequently, vasculitis, local ulcerations at the site of injection and exacerbation of psoriasis.
Anti-IFN antibodies have been found with greatly varying incidence. The clinical consequences, e.g. loss of therapeutic activity, need to be further clarified. The appearance of anti-IFN antibodies should not lead to discontinuing treatment, but the use of another IFN preparation is required in patients with resistance.
Mild hormonal and metabolic disorders have been documented of which hypertrigly ceridaemia is the more common. Clinically significant drug interactions have rarely been reported despite the potential inhibition of hepatic drug metabolism by IFN. The safety of IFN in pregnant women remains to be established.
Due to the more extensive use of IFNα, most adverse effects have been reported with IFNα preparations. Overall, the mechanisms underlying toxic effects are not well understood, and the incidence of adverse effects is usually dose- and duration-dependent.