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Non-specific immunotherapies broadly boost the immune system. Even though they do not target cancer cells specifically, they can still create a better overall immune response against cancer cells.
Some non-specific immunotherapies are given by themselves as cancer treatments. Others are used with a main treatment, boosting the immune system to improve the effectiveness of another type of immunotherapy. Examples of non-specific immunotherapies are interleukins that stimulate immune system cells to grow and divide more quickly, and interferons that boost the ability of immune cells to attack cancer cells. Interleukins are used to treat melanoma and metastatic kidney cancer, and interferon is sometimes used to treat melanoma. Clinical trials for other cancer sites are ongoing.
Common side effects interleukin include flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, fatigue and confusion. Most people on interleukin gain weight. Some have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Many patients develop low blood pressure, which can be treated with other medicines. Rare but serious side effects include an abnormal heartbeat, chest pain and other heart problems. Because of these possible side effects, when high doses of interleukin are necessary, they are administered in a hospital.
Like interleukin, interferon side effects include flu-like symptoms, as well as low white blood cell counts (which increase the risk of infection), rashes and thinning hair. In some patients, these side effects can be severe and can make treatment with interferon hard to tolerate. However, most side effects don’t last long after treatment ends. Other rare long-term effects of interferon include nerve damage, including nerves in the brain and spinal cord.