Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to target proteins that control how cancer cells grow, divide, and spread. Cancer treatments that "target" cancer cells can offer an advantage of reduced cancer treatment-related side effects and improved outcomes. Doctors often use targeted therapy in combination with chemotherapy and other treatments.

How Does Targeted Therapy Fight Cancer?

There are different types of targeted therapy; however, most help treat cancer by interfering with specific substances, such as proteins and genes, that help tumors grow and spread throughout the body. Doctors often use targeted therapy, along with chemotherapy and other treatments. 

Targeted therapies can: 

  • Help the immune system destroy existing cancer cells
  • Block signals to cancer cells that tell them to grow and divide
  • Prevent cancer cells from living longer than normal
  • Signal the blood to stop creating blood vessels that a tumor needs to grow
  • Deliver cell-killing substances to cancer cells
  • Starve cancer of the hormones it needs to grow
  • Encourage cell death in cancer cells

Types of Targeted Therapies

Most targeted therapies are either small-molecule drugs or monoclonal antibodies.

  • Small-molecule drugs are small enough to enter cells quickly and easily, so they become targets that are inside cells.
  • Monoclonal antibodies, also known as therapeutic antibodies, are proteins produced in the lab. These proteins attach to specific targets unique to cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies mark cancer cells so that they alert the immune system to destroy them. Other monoclonal antibodies can directly stop cancer cells from growing or cause them to self-destruct. Still, others carry toxins to cancer cells.

Other types of targeted therapy include: 

  • apoptosis inducers 
  • Immunotherapies that trigger the immune system to kill cancer cells.
  • angiogenesis inhibitors

Administration and Frequency of Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapies can be given in two main ways: 

  1. Small-molecule drugs are given orally (pills or capsules that you can swallow). 
  2. Monoclonal antibodies are usually given intravenously (through a needle in a blood vein, in the same way, chemotherapy is given intravenously).

How often and how long you’ll need targeted therapy treatment depends on your cancer type and how well you respond to treatment. Your cancer treatment may take place every day, every week, or every month. You might also be given the treatment in cycles, a period of treatment followed by a break.

You must follow your oncologist’s instructions and show up for all of your scheduled follow-up appointments. Your WVCI cancer care team will work with you for your individualized cancer treatment plan.

Side Effects of Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy can cause side effects, although usually less severe than what is typically experienced after chemotherapy. The side effects you may have will depend on the type of targeted therapy you receive and how your body reacts.

Common side effects of targeted therapy include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Liver problems, including hepatitis
  • Problems with blood clotting and wound healing
  • Fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Mouth sores
  • Changes in hair color (but generally not loss)
  • Nail changes 
  • Skin problems, including rashes and dry skin

There may be other side effects with the specific drug you are receiving; check with your oncologist.

Developments in Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapies are a rapidly growing field of cancer research. As researchers continue to study new targets and drugs through clinical trials, there is hope that more cancers will be able to be treated with targeted therapies in the future. Breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, melanoma, and blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, are examples of cancers currently treated with targeted therapies.