Interleukin-2 (IL-2, PROLEUKIN®)

Immunotherapy is cancer treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer, such as melanoma.

Interleukin-2 is systemic therapy, which means that the treatment reaches all parts of your body through the bloodstream. Systemic cancer treatments fight advanced and metastatic cancers, which have spread to other parts of the body.

Interleukin-2 is an immunotherapy that activates the immune system to kill melanoma cells and shrink tumors wherever they develop in the body.

What Is Interleukin-2?

Interleukin-2 (IL-2), also known as aldesleukin or PROLEUKIN®, is an immunotherapy treatment for people with advanced and metastatic melanoma.

IL-2 is a naturally occurring protein that is produced by a specific type of white blood cell, a T lymphocyte. Its normal function in the body is to increase the growth and activity of other white blood cells (T and B lymphocytes).

IL-2 used for melanoma therapy is manufactured into a product called aldesleukin, a drug used to boost the immune system to fight cancer cells.

How Does Interleukin-2 Work?

Interleukin-2 works by:

  • Blocking the reproduction and spread of cancer cells
  • Stimulating the development of white blood cells that attack cancer
  • Causing cancer cells to release chemicals that attract cancer-killing immune system cells                   

Which Patients Benefit from Interleukin-2?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved IL-2 in 1998 to treat patients with stage IV (metastatic) melanoma. In stage IV melanoma, cancer cells have spread to organs and other parts of the body.

How Is Interleukin-2 Given?

Because side effects can be severe, patients must receive IL-2 in a hospital under the care of a qualified physician experienced in treating patients with IL-2. Patients receive the drug intravenously (into a blood vein) via infusion in a treatment course of two cycles:

  • Three times per day for five days
  • Seven to 10 days of rest
  • Three times per day for five days

Physicians closely monitor patients for side effects and response to the treatment. After the first treatment course, patients usually receive additional courses if they are responding well and do not have serious side effects.

What Are the Goals of Interleukin-2?

IL-2 works as a systemic treatment to:

  • Shrink melanoma tumors
  • Kill melanoma cells

As an immunotherapy, IL-2 stimulates your immune system, which has an immunological “memory.” That means that IL-2 may help your immune system continue to attack melanoma cells even after your treatment ends.

Physicians now have extensive experience with IL-2 outside clinical trials. In some patients, IL-2 can shrink tumors. A small number of patients can experience complete regression that can persist for seven or more years.

Melanoma treatments, like IL-2, have side effects, which can sometimes be serious. Patients should talk with their physician to learn more about the side effects of IL-2 and other melanoma treatment options.

What Should I Ask My Doctor About Interleukin-2?

It’s important to keep in mind that not all treatments work for all patients. If you are interested in learning more about IL-2, here are some questions you should ask your physicians:

  • Am I eligible for IL-2?
  • What is your experience with IL-2?
  • Is IL-2 a good option for my melanoma treatment?
  • Is there an alternative to IL-2 for me?
  • How successful has IL-2 been for patients like me?
  • What are the side effects of IL-2?
  • Are there any clinical trials for IL-2 that I should consider?
  • What other treatments are FDA-approved for treating advanced melanoma?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the available treatment options?
  • What are the goals for my treatment?

Latest Treatments for Advanced Melanoma

Learn more about the latest, most effective treatments for patients who have advanced melanoma:

Find out more about adjuvant therapy, which is treatment after surgery for people with high-risk melanoma (stages IIB, IIC, III and IV). 


Melanoma Research

Since its founding in 2007, the Melanoma Research Alliance has awarded over $100 million to research aimed at better preventing, diagnosing and treating melanoma. Learn more about our funded research.

 Last reviewed: May 2016

 Reviewers: John Kirkwood, Lynn Schuchter, Louise Perkins

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