Asparaginase (Spectrila, Erwinase, Oncaspar)

Asparaginase is a chemotherapy drug. It is also known as Spectrila, Erwinase and Oncaspar. 

It as a treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

You pronounce asparaginase as as-para-jih-nays.

There are different types of asparaginase. How often you have asparaginase depends on which type you are having. Pegaspargase (Oncaspar) stays in the body for longer than asparaginase (Spectrila and Erwinase). So you have it less often.

How does asparaginase work?

All cells need a substance called asparagine to make proteins and create new cells. Asparaginase is an enzyme that breaks down asparagine. Unlike normal cells, ALL cells are unable to make their own asparagine. So asparaginase stops the cancer cells from dividing and growing.

How do you have asparaginase?

You have asparaginase and pegaspargase as an injection into a muscle (intramuscular) or as a drip into your bloodstream (intravenously).

How you have it depends on the type of asparaginase used.

Injection into a muscle

You have the injection into a muscle, usually into your buttock or upper thigh.

Into your bloodstream

You have treatment through a thin short tube (a cannula) that goes into a vein in your arm each time you have treatment.

Or you might have treatment through a long line: a central line, a PICC line or a portacath. These are long plastic tubes that give the drug into a large vein in your chest. The tube stays in place throughout the course of treatment.

How often do you have asparaginase?

How often you have asparaginase depends on the type you are having. Your medical team will let you know.

Asparaginase can be given in combination with other cancer drugs.

Tests

You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.

What are the side effects of asparaginase?

How often and how severe the side effects are can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatments you're having. 

When to contact your team

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:

  • you have severe side effects 
  • your side effects aren’t getting any better
  • your side effects are getting worse

Early treatment can help manage side effects better. 

Contact your advice line immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C.

We haven't listed all the side effects here. Remember it is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects. But you might have some of them at the same time.

Common side effects

These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (more than 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

Increased risk of infection

Increased risk of getting an infection is due to a drop in white blood cells. Symptoms include a change in temperature, aching muscles, headaches, feeling cold and shivery and generally unwell. You might have other symptoms depending on where the infection is.

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. You should contact your advice line urgently if you think you have an infection. 

Blood clots

Blood clots can develop in the deep veins of your body, usually the leg. This is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). A blood clot can be very serious if it travels to your lungs (pulmonary embolism).

Symptoms of a blood clot include:

•    pain, redness and swelling around the area where the clot is and may feel warm to touch
•    breathlessness
•    pain in your chest or upper back – dial 999 if you have chest pain
•    coughing up blood

Tell your doctor immediately or go to A&E if you have any symptoms of a blood clot.

Diarrhoea

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea, such as if you've had 4 or more loose watery poos (stools) in 24 hours. Or if you can't drink to replace the lost fluid. Or if it carries on for more than 3 days.

Your doctor may give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment. Eat less fibre, avoid raw fruits, fruit juice, cereals and vegetables, and drink plenty to replace the fluid lost.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. It might help to avoid fatty or fried foods, eat small meals and snacks and take regular sips of water. Relaxation techniques might also help.

It is important to take anti sickness medicines as prescribed even if you don’t feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness rather than treat it once it has started.

Inflammation of the pancreas

This drug can cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). Tell your doctor straight away if you have sudden and severe pain in your tummy (abdomen).

An allergic reaction

A reaction may happen during the infusion. Symptoms can include a skin rash, itching, swelling of the lips, face or throat, breathing difficulties, fever and chills. Your nurse will give you medicines beforehand to try to prevent a reaction. 

Tell your doctor or nurse immediately if at any time you feel unwell. They will slow or stop your drip for a while and give you medicine to help relieve your symptoms.

Loss of appetite and weight loss

You might not feel like eating and may lose weight. Eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day can be easier to manage. You can talk to a dietitian if you are concerned about your appetite or weight loss. 

High levels of pancreatic and liver enzymes

You might have changes in the levels of pancreatic and liver enzymes such as amylase and lipase. You have regular blood tests during treatment to check for this.

High blood sugar levels

High blood sugar levels can cause headaches, feeling thirsty and blurred vision. You have regular tests to check your blood sugar levels. You may need to check your levels more often if you are diabetic.

Changes to the way your blood clots

You may have changes to the way your blood clots which can cause bleeding and bruising.

Low levels of albumin in your body

Albumin is an important protein in your body. Low levels of albumin can cause weakness, muscle cramps and swelling in different parts of your body. You have regular blood tests to check the albumin levels. 

High levels of bilirubin

You might have high levels of bilirubin in your blood. You will have regular blood tests to check the bilirubin levels. 

High blood cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance which helps cells in the body to work normally. When the cholesterol level is too high it could have an effect on your heart. You usually have blood tests to check your cholesterol levels.

Skin rash

Skin problems include a skin rash, dry skin and itching. This usually goes back to normal when your treatment finishes. Your healthcare team can tell you what products you can use on your skin to help.

Tiredness (fatigue)

You might feel very tired and as though you lack energy.

Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.

Changes to your blood pressure 

During treatment, your blood pressure may be lower than normal. Tell your nurse if you feel dizzy or faint.

Tummy (abdominal pain) 

Tell your treatment team if you have this. They can check the cause and give you medicine to help.

Fluid build up (oedema)

A build up of fluid may cause swelling in your arms, hands, ankles, legs, face and other parts of the body. Contact your healthcare team if this happens to you.

Occasional side effects

These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (between 1 and 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • a drop in the level of platelets which can cause bruising and bleeding
  • feeling breathless and looking pale due to a drop in red blood cells
  • mouth sores and ulcers
  • liver damage which usually gets better when you stop treatment
  • a severe infection called sepsis which can be life threatening if not treated early
  • pain in your arms and legs
  • seizures (fits)
  • numbness and tingling in your feet or hands
  • fainting or passing out
  • drop in the levels of oxygen in your body
  • low mood (depression) and sleepiness
  • confusion and seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
  • dizziness
  • low blood sugar levels
  • feeling agitated
  • back pain
  • pain in your joints
  • breathlessness
  • low potassium levels

Rare side effects

This side effects happens in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%).

  • bleeding in your pancreas
  • yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice) due to a build up of bilirubin in your body
  • severe liver problems such as liver failure which can be life threatening if not treated early
  • a collection of symptoms called posterior reversible encephalopathy which can cause headaches, fits, confusion, and loss of vision
  • a severe and potentially life threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis – your treatment team will monitor you closely while you are having this treatment
  • stroke

Coping with side effects

We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.

What else do I need to know?

Other medicines, foods and drinks

Cancer drugs can interact with medicines, herbal products, and some food and drinks. We are unable to list all the possible interactions that may happen. An example is grapefruit or grapefruit juice which can increase the side effects of certain drugs.

Tell your healthcare team about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies. Also let them know about any other medical conditions or allergies you may have.

Loss of fertility

It is not known whether this treatment affects fertility in people. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.

Pregnancy and contraception

This treatment might harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or get someone pregnant while you're having treatment and for a few months afterwards.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment. Let them know straight away if you or your partner become pregnant while having treatment.

Breastfeeding

It is not known whether this drug comes through into the breast milk. Doctors usually advise that you don’t breastfeed during this treatment.

Treatment for other conditions

Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment. For example, if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.

Immunisations

Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.

In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and one of the shingles vaccines called Zostavax.

You can have:

  • other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
  • the flu vaccine (as an injection)
  • the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine - talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best time to have it in relation to your cancer treatment

Members of your household who are aged 5 years or over are also able to have the COVID-19 vaccine. This is to help lower your risk of getting COVID-19 while having cancer treatment and until your immune system Open a glossary item recovers from treatment.

Contact with others who have had immunisations - You can be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections. Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as the oral typhoid vaccine. Sometimes people who have had the live shingles vaccine can get a shingles type rash. If this happens they should keep the area covered.

If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as this is a live vaccine. This is for 2 weeks following their vaccination.

Babies have the live rotavirus vaccine. The virus is in the baby’s poo for about 2 weeks and could make you ill if your immunity is low. Get someone else to change their nappies during this time if you can. If this isn't possible, wash your hands well after changing their nappy.

More information about this treatment

For further information about this treatment and possible side effects go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website. You can find the patient information leaflet on this website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

Related links