Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in boosting the immune system. Interferon and interleukin are types of cytokines found in the body. Scientists have developed man made versions of these to treat cancer.

The man made version of interleukin is called aldesleukin.

How interferon and aldesleukin work

Interferon and aldesleukin work in several ways, including:

  • interfering with the way cancer cells grow and multiply
  • stimulating the immune system and encouraging killer T cells and other cells to attack cancer cells
  • encouraging cancer cells to produce chemicals that attract immune system cells to them


Interferon is also called interferon alfa or Intron A. 

Doctors don’t use interferon very often any more. They use newer types of immunotherapy drugs instead. But doctors sometimes use interferon for a few cancer types including:

  • kidney cancer (renal cell cancer)
  • some types of leukaemia
  • skin (cutaneous) lymphoma

You are more likely to have interferon as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously). Or you might have it into the bloodstream through a drip (infusion).

How often you have it depends on which type of cancer you are having treatment for. Most people have interferon 3 times a week. Or you might have it as a daily injection.

The video below shows you how to give an injection just under your skin (subcutaneously).


Aldesleukin is also called Interleukin 2, IL2 or Proleukin.

In cancer care, doctors use it most often to treat kidney cancer. It is also in clinical trials for some other types of cancer.

You are most likely to have it as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously). But you may have it into a vein, either as an injection or through a drip.

How often you have this drug depends on which cancer you have.

Side effects of interferon and aldesleukin

The side effects of interferon and aldesleukin include:

  • a drop in blood cells causing an increased risk of infection, bleeding problems, tiredness and breathlessness
  • flu-like symptoms
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness and weakness (fatigue)
  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite

Aldesleukin can also cause low blood pressure.

Talk to your medical team or GP about your side effects. They may be able to suggest ways or prescribe medicines to treat them.

For more information about the side effects of your treatment, go to the individual drug pages.

  • Electronic Medicines Compendium 
    Accessed February 2021

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Immunotherapy for metastatic renal cell carcinoma
    S Unverzagt and others
    Cochrane Database Syst Review, 2017. Volume 15, Issue 5

  • Recognizing and managing on toxicities in cancer immunotherapy
    L.Yang and others
    Tumour Biology, 2017. Volume 39, Issue 3, 

  • Cytokines in the Treatment of Cancer
    K Conlon and others
    J Interferon Cytokine Res. 2019 Jan 1; 39(1): 6–21

Last reviewed: 
19 May 2021
Next review due: 
15 May 2024

Related links