Research in practice: The impact of interferon-α therapy on immune tolerance


  • Conflict of interest None.


Interferon-α (IFN-α) is the only drug approved for adjuvant therapy of malignant melanoma and is also used in the treatment of hematological and solid tumors. Along with its proven clinical efficacy, IFN-α produces several side effects, particularly with regard to autoimmune disorders. Curious about symptoms of autoimmunity during IFN-α therapy, we asked whether IFN-α directly impacts on immune tolerance. We found that IFN-α does alter the function of tolerogenic dendritic cells (DC) as well as of induced and naturally occurring T-regulatory cells (nTregs). IFN-α blocks the tolerogenic phenotype of DC by inducing maturation and thus preventing the induction of inducible Tregs by DC. It also has direct effects on nTregs. IFN-α reduces cAMP in Tregs via ERK/phosphodiesterase-mediated pathways. Since cAMP is essentially involved in suppression by nTregs, the IFN-α-dependent reduction of cAMP levels abolishes the suppressive capacity of nTregs. Therefore, Tregs are incapable of suppressing the activity of effector T cells and natural killer cells, resulting in tumor rejection. Thus, IFN-α overcomes immunological tolerance processes, leading to an improved immunostimulation and efficient tumor rejection, but also increases the risk of autoimmunity.