Biological Therapies to Treat Hodgkin's Disease

One of the biological therapies used for the treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma is interferon therapy. Interferons are a class of proteins that are released by virus-infected cells. They help normal cells to make antiviral proteins. Interferons also help the body to reduce tumor cell proliferation (growth and reproduction), while strengthening the body's immune response.

Interferon-alpha (INFa) to Treat Hodgkin's Disease

INFa is a type of interferon that may be used to treat lymphoma. Research indicates that interferon can cause tumors of some NHL types to shrink. For example, interferons have been found to be active as single agents against follicular lymphoma, low-grade T-cell lymphoma, and hairy leukemia/lymphoma. Yet experts remain uncertain about the benefits of interferon, and there are questions about its suitability in combination with chemotherapy. Interferons generally are ineffective as single agents against intermediate- or high-grade lymphomas.

Interferon-alpha can be given by a number of methods—that is, by injection into a vein, into a muscle, or under the skin—although subcutaneous (under the skin) injection is the customary route. Often IFN-a is started at a low dose (e.g., 3 MU daily), with gradual increases over time. Unfortunately, though, this drug is not without side effects. Possible IFN-related complaints include fevers, shivers, muscle aches, bone pain, headaches, concentration difficulties, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and general "flu-like" symptoms when starting the drug. Such symptoms usually last for 1 to 2 weeks, but may be lessened by drugs such as acetaminophen. Side effects recur if the INF-a dosage is increased, but they are temporary and usually improve after INF-a therapy is completed.

Monoclonal Antibodies to Treat Hodgkin's Disease

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made antibodies (infection-fighting immune system proteins) that can be designed to seek and destroy lymphoma cells. These antibodies are now being tested in clinical trials with NHL patients. The monoclonal antibodies are directed against antigens (molecules that cause an immune response by antibodies) on the surfaces of lymphoma cells.

Once the lymphoma cells are "tagged" by the antibodies, they are attacked and removed by the body's immune system. One monoclonal product (Rituxan or rituximab)—which recognizes the antigen CD20—has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of follicular lymphoma (see Types of Lymphoma). Patients receive four intravenous (IV) antibody treatments over a 3-week period.

Side effects associated with the use of antibodies may occur rapidly after the first dose and often involve fever, nausea, headache, and chills/rigidity. More severe reactions may occur, but they are not the same as the side effects seen during chemotherapy. Monoclonal antibody therapy usually is reserved for patients with lymphoma that has returned or has not responded to chemotherapy.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 22 Sep 2015