Targeted cancer therapy uses medications and other substances to find and attack cancer cells. There are different types of targeted cancer therapy, which doctors may recommend for numerous types of the disease.

These techniques target parts of the cancer cells that help control how they grow, multiply, and spread. They seek out certain proteins and changes in cancer cells, ignoring healthy tissue and cells.

In doing so, they can effectively find and destroy several types of cancer. However, like all treatments, they have limitations and may not be suitable for everyone.

This article reviews what targeted cancer therapy is in more detail.

Closeup of an infusion machine.Share on Pinterest
AegeanBlue/Getty Images

According to the American Cancer Society, the many types of targeted cancer therapy include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies: These are lab-grown proteins that can attach to specific targets on cancer cells. They can provide a variety of roles, such as delivering toxins directly to the cancer cell, causing the cancer cells to self-destruct, or marking cancer cells so that the immune system targets and destroys them. However, doctors classify some types of monoclonal antibodies as immunotherapies because they work with the immune system.
  • Angiogenesis inhibitors: This type of medication blocks the formation of new blood vessels that help cancer grow. Bevacizumab is one type doctors may recommend for several different cancers.
  • Signal transduction inhibitors: These medications disrupt cell signals so that they cause cancer cells to change how they act.
  • Proteasome inhibitors: These medications cause cell death by disrupting cell functions in cancer cells.

Targeted therapy, regardless of the type, will work by either finding and attacking specific substances or areas in cancer cells or through targeting messages within cancer cells that cause them to grow.

The targeted therapy medications look for the following changes in cancer cells in order to target them:

  • the presence of proteins that are not in typical cells
  • too much of a certain protein on a cell
  • genetic changes that are not in typical cells
  • the presence of a protein with a mutation

Once the medication has located the changes, targeted therapy attacks the cancer cells by:

  • triggering the immune system to kill the cancer cells
  • turning off or blocking chemical signals for cell division and growth
  • stopping the production of new blood vessels that allow cancer cells to grow
  • carrying toxins directly to the cancer cells to kill them and leave healthy cells alone
  • changing proteins within the cancer cells to cause death
  • prevent hormones necessary for growth from reaching the cells, such as in breast or prostate cancer

Targeted therapy comes in two forms: intravenous (IV) targeted therapy and oral targeted therapy.

There are two types of IV targeted therapy. IV push involves healthcare professionals administering the medication quickly through a needle into a catheter in the arm. Infusion typically means the medication mixes in a solution and slowly enters the blood through tubing. An IV pump controls the flow of medication during an infusion.

The other method involves taking an oral solution, pill, or capsule. A person will typically need to pay close attention to how and when to take the medication and how to store it. These medications can also be more expensive than other options.

Although the exact medication type can differ, targeted medications can help treat a wide range of cancers. Examples include:

  • bladder cancer
  • breast cancer
  • cervical cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • endometrial cancer
  • esophageal cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • leukemia
  • liver and bile duct cancer
  • lung cancer
  • lymphoma
  • multiple myeloma
  • neuroblastoma
  • pancreatic cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • skin cancer
  • soft tissue sarcoma
  • stomach (gastric) cancer
  • systemic mastocytosis
  • thyroid cancer

Before beginning treatment, a doctor will likely order tests, such as a blood test or a biopsy, to check the cells to see if targeted therapy is a suitable treatment. This can help determine which specific medications may work best for the person and whether other treatment options may be more suitable.

Learn more about types of cancer.

Despite advances in targeted therapy medications and understanding of cancer cells, doctors only use targeted therapy by itself for a few types of cancers.

Some people may receive targeted cancer therapy along with another form of treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. Others may only receive targeted therapy.

In most cases, a doctor will recommend undergoing additional treatments, such as:

  • radiation
  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • hormone therapy

Learn about common cancer medications.

Like other cancer treatments, targeted therapy may cause side effects.

Some potential side effects include:

  • changes to skin, such as photosensitivity and changes in hair growth
  • clotting or bleeding issues
  • high blood pressure
  • heart damage
  • slow wound healing
  • swelling
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • autoimmune reactions
  • nausea and vomiting
  • shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • mouth sores
  • fatigue
  • cough
  • hair loss
  • headache
  • damage to organs or other tissue, such as the thyroid gland, liver, or kidneys
  • increased risks of certain infections
  • allergic reactions
  • second cancers

Some side effects can also occur with other types of cancer treatment. When choosing the best treatment time, it is important to consider the following:

  • Not everyone will experience side effects, and some will have milder symptoms if they occur.
  • Different medications can cause different side effects.
  • An oncologist can review potential side effects with a person to help them make an informed decision before starting a new medication.

A person may undergo targeted cancer therapy on its own or in combination with other cancer treatments. Targeted therapies find and attack cancer cells, slowing or preventing growth and division. They may attack them directly or signal the immune system to find and attack the cells.

Like other treatments, targeted therapy can cause side effects. They can range in severity from mild to severe, though some people may not develop them at all.

It is best for someone to discuss targeted therapy and the risk of side effects with an oncologist or other member of a treatment team before starting the therapy. Their treatment team can provide more information about the type of targeted therapy they recommend and answer any questions someone may have.