Aldesleukin (Proleukin®)

Aldesleukin (Proleukin®) is a targeted therapy used to treat kidney cancer and melanoma. It may also be used to treat other cancers.

It is best to read this information with our general information about targeted therapies and the type of cancer you have.

Aldesleukin is usually given into a vein or as an injection under the skin. You usually have it as an outpatient or during a hospital stay. Your cancer doctor or nurse will tell you how often you will have it.

Like all targeted therapy drugs, aldesleukin can cause side effects. Some of the side effects can be serious, so it is important to read the detailed information below.

Your healthcare team can give you advice on how to manage any side effects. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you:

  • have a temperature
  • feel unwell
  • have severe side effects, including any we do not mention here.

Rarely, side effects may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor or nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

If you need medical attention for any reason other than cancer, always tell the healthcare staff that you are having this treatment.

What is aldesleukin?

Aldesleukin is a targeted therapy drug (sometimes called biological therapy). It is used to treat kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body and a type of skin cancer called melanoma. It may also be used to treat other types of cancer as part of a research trial.

You may find it helpful to read this information with our general information about the type of cancer you have.

How targeted therapies work

This animation shows how targeted therapies work and what effect they have on the body.

About our cancer information videos

How targeted therapies work

This animation shows how targeted therapies work and what effect they have on the body.

About our cancer information videos


How aldesleukin works

Aldesleukin (sometimes called interleukin-2 or IL2) is a man-made version of a protein the body produces naturally in very small amounts.

Aldesleukin stimulates the immune system (your body’s defence against infection and disease) to fight some types of cancer. It encourages a type of white blood cell to recognise and destroy the cancer cells.


How aldesleukin is given

You may have aldesleukin in one of two ways:

  • as a drip into a vein (intravenous infusion)
  • as an injection under the skin (subcutaneously).

When you have aldesleukin as a drip you need to stay in hospital for close monitoring because it’s given at higher doses. This means the side effects are more severe and can be serious. Your doctors and nurses will monitor you carefully and make sure the side effects are controlled.

If you have aldesleukin as an injection under the skin, you or a relative or carer can be taught how to give it. If this is not possible, a district nurse or GP practice nurse can give you the injections. Your doctor or specialist nurse will explain how often you will have the drug and how long your treatment will last. They will also talk to you about the side effects. During treatment you will have regular blood tests to monitor the effect of the drug on your blood cells and organs.


Possible side effects of aldesleukin

We have included the most common side effects of aldesleukin here. We haven’t included all the less common and rarer side effects. You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you will not get them all.

Your doctor can prescribe drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist has explained.

Your nurse will give you advice about managing side effects. After your treatment is over, side effects will start to improve. Always tell your doctor or nurse about the side effects you have. Most side effects gradually improve when treatment stops.

Serious and life-threatening side effects

Sometimes cancer drugs can result in very severe reactions, which rarely may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor and nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

Contact the hospital

Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. You can call them if you feel unwell or need advice any time of day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.

More information about this drug

We’re not able to list every side effect for this treatment here, particularly the rarer ones. For more detailed information you can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC).

Risk of infection

Aldesleukin can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This will make you more likely to get an infection.

Contact the hospital straight away on the contact number you’ve been given if:

  • your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5°F)
  • you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
  • you have symptoms of an infection.

Symptoms of an infection include:

  • feeling shivery
  • a sore throat
  • a cough
  • diarrhoea
  • needing to pass urine often.

If the number of white blood cells is low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time.

Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)

Aldesleukin can reduce the number of red blood cells in your blood. These cells carry oxygen around the body. If the number of red blood cells is low, you may be tired and breathless. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel like this.

Bruising and bleeding

Aldesleukin can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any bruising or bleeding you can’t explain. This includes nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin.

Flu-like symptoms

These include a high temperature, chills, muscle and joint pains and a lack of energy (lethargy). These can happen soon after the drug has been given.

If you have these symptoms, it's important to drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. Your doctor may prescribe paracetamol to reduce these side effects.

Feeling sick

Your doctor can prescribe effective anti-sickness drugs to prevent or reduce sickness or vomiting. If the sickness isn't controlled, or if it continues, tell your doctor. They can prescribe other anti-sickness drugs that may work better for you.

If you have a poor appetite, talk to your specialist nurse or ask to see a dietitian. They can give you advice on improving your appetite and keeping your weight stable.

Skin changes

Aldesleukin may cause your skin to redden or become darker and it may become dry and itchy. Your doctor can prescribe creams to help. Tell your doctor straight away if you develop a rash or your skin peels or blisters. If you already have a skin complaint, such as psoriasis, aldesleukin may make it worse.

During treatment and for several months afterwards, you will be more sensitive to the sun and your skin may burn more easily than normal. You can still go out in the sun, but you should wear a suncream with a high sun protection factor (SPF), and cover up with clothing and a hat.

Problems at the injection site

If you have aldesleukin as an injection under the skin you may get redness and swelling around the area where it’s given (injection site). You can reduce this by changing the injection site with each injection you have. Your nurse can also give you advice.

Diarrhoea or pain in the tummy

Your doctor can prescribe drugs to control diarrhoea. Let them know if it is severe or if it doesn’t get better. Make sure you drink at least two litres (three and a half pints) of fluids every day if you have diarrhoea.

Let your doctor know straight away if you have pain in your tummy, signs of bleeding from the back passage or black stools, or if you are vomiting up blood (or vomit that looks like coffee grounds).

Effects on the lungs

Always tell your doctor straight away if you develop a cough, feel breathless or cough up blood. You should also let them know if any existing breathing problems get worse. If necessary, they can arrange for you to have tests to check your lungs.

Changes in mood or behaviour

Let your doctor know straight away if you feel anxious, agitated, confused, have problems sleeping or, less commonly, see things that aren’t there (hallucinations). It’s important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.

Tiredness

You may feel tired during and after your treatment. Try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. It helps to balance this with some gentle exercise, such as short walks. If you feel sleepy, don’t drive or operate machinery.

Muscle and joint pain

You may get pain in your joints or muscles during treatment. Occasionally this can be severe. Tell your doctor if this happens so they can prescribe painkillers. Let them know if the pain does not get better. They can usually increase or change your painkillers to help.

Effects on the kidneys

Your doctors will check how well your kidneys are working with a blood test before and during your course of treatment with aldesleukin.

In some hospitals you will be asked to measure and record everything you drink and the amount of urine you pass. You may be given medicine to help you pass more urine if you don't pass enough.

Fluid retention

You may put on weight or your face, ankles and legs may swell. This improves slowly once your treatment has finished. Sometimes drugs can be given to help reduce the swelling.

Sore mouth and ulcers

Your mouth may become sore or dry, or you may notice small mouth ulcers during this treatment. Drinking plenty of fluids, and cleaning your teeth regularly and gently with a soft toothbrush, can help reduce the risk of this happening. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of these problems. They can prescribe mouthwashes and medicine to prevent or clear mouth infections.

Effects on the eyes

Your eyes may become sore, red or itchy (conjunctivitis). If this happens, tell your doctor. They can prescribe eye drops to help. If you notice any changes in your vision, contact your doctor so that they can check your eyes.

Blocked nose or nosebleeds

Tell your doctor if you get these effects. Let them know straight away if you have nosebleeds.

Liver changes

This drug may cause changes in the way your liver works. This will return to normal when the treatment finishes. You are very unlikely to notice any problems, but your doctor or nurse will take regular blood samples to check your liver is working properly.

Raised blood sugar levels

Aldesleukin may raise your blood sugar levels. Symptoms of raised blood sugar include feeling thirsty, needing to pass urine more often and feeling tired. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.

If you have diabetes, your blood sugar levels may be higher than usual. Your doctor will talk to you about how to manage this. You may need to change your insulin or tablet dose.

Changes to calcium or thyroid levels

Aldesleukin can lower or raise your blood calcium levels or your thyroid levels. This may cause different symptoms. Your doctors take regular blood tests so any changes are usually discovered before you get any symptoms.

Leaking from tiny blood vessels (capillary leak syndrome)

This can happen a few hours after you first have aldesleukin as a drip (infusion). Fluid leaks from tiny blood vessels called capillaries. This can cause low blood pressure and make you very unwell. Because you have the treatment in hospital your nurses and doctors will be checking you for any of these signs. Tell your nurse or doctor if you feel faint, dizzy, or sick, have diarrhoea, feel breathless, have a fast heartbeat or notice swelling in your ankles, legs or face.


Less common side effects of aldesleukin

Changes in the way your heart works

In some people, aldesleukin can affect how the heart works. This depends on the dose given. Tell your doctor straight away if you notice any changes to your heartbeat, if you have pain or tightness in your chest, or if you feel breathless.

Low blood pressure

The hospital team will check your blood pressure regularly during treatment. It's important to tell your doctor if you feel dizzy or faint.

Effects on the nerves

Aldesleukin can cause inflammation of the nerves that can sometimes cause very serious problems.

If you have unusual weakness in your arms, legs or face, or have tingling in your hands or feet, contact the hospital straight away.

It is important to tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you feel ill or have severe side effects. This includes any we don’t mention here.


Other information about aldesleukin

Blood clot risk

Cancer increases the chance of a blood clot (thrombosis) and aldesleukin can add to this. A clot can cause symptoms such as pain, redness and swelling in a leg, breathlessness and chest pain. Contact your doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms. A blood clot is serious but your doctor can treat it with drugs that thin the blood. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.

Other medicines

Some medicines can interact with aldesleukin or be harmful when you are having this drug. This includes medicines you can buy in a shop or chemist. Tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.

Fertility

Aldesleukin may affect your fertility (being able to get pregnant or father a child). If you are worried about this, you can talk to your doctor or nurse before treatment starts.

Contraception

Your doctor will advise you not to become pregnant or father a child during treatment. This is because the drugs may harm a developing baby. It’s important to use effective contraception during and after treatment for a few months. You can talk to your doctor or nurse about this.

Breastfeeding

Women are advised not to breastfeed during treatment and for a few months after it has finished. This is in case there is any of the drug in their breast milk.

Medical and dental treatment

If you need to go into hospital for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses that you are having aldesleukin. Give them contact details for your cancer doctor.

Talk to your cancer doctor or nurse if you think you need dental treatment. Always tell your dentist you are having aldesleukin.