Chemotherapy Principles

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What’s new in chemotherapy research?

Over the years, many people have been successfully treated with chemotherapy thanks to ongoing research into the use of these drugs. Yet despite the best treatments, some cancers are very difficult to control, and some will come back.

Several exciting new uses of chemotherapy and other agents hold even more promise for curing or controlling cancer. New drugs, new combinations of drugs, and new delivery techniques will help doctors cure or control cancer and improve the quality of life for people with cancer. There are many expected advances in coming years; here are just a few:

  • New classes of chemotherapy medicines and combinations of medicines are being developed.
  • New ways to give the drugs are being studied, such as using smaller amounts over longer periods of time or giving them continuously with special pumps.
  • Some newer medicines, called targeted therapies, are designed to attack a particular target on cancer cells. These drugs may have fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy drugs and may be used along with them. Several are now being studied, and many are already being used.
  • Other approaches to targeting drugs more specifically at the cancer cells — such as attaching drugs to monoclonal antibodies — may make them work better and cause fewer side effects. Monoclonal antibodies, which are special types of proteins made in the lab, can be designed to guide chemotherapy drugs directly to the cancer cells. A number of these are being studied and some are available through clinical trials. A couple of monoclonal antibodies that deliver radiation to the cancer cells have already been approved.
  • Monoclonal antibodies (without attached chemotherapy) can also be used as immunotherapy drugs, to strengthen the body’s immune response against cancer cells. A number of these types of drugs have been approved, and more are being studied. For more on these drugs, see our document called Immunotherapy.
  • Liposomal therapy uses chemotherapy drugs that have been packaged inside liposomes (synthetic fat globules). The liposome helps the drug penetrate the cancer cells more selectively and decreases possible side effects (such as hair loss and nausea and vomiting). Examples of liposomal medicines already being used are Doxil® (the encapsulated form of doxorubicin) and DaunoXome® (the encapsulated form of daunorubicin).
  • Chemoprotective agents are being developed to protect against specific side effects of certain chemotherapy drugs. For example, dexrazoxane (Zinecard®) helps prevent heart damage, amifostine (Ethyol®) helps protect the kidneys, and mesna protects the bladder.
  • Some new agents may be given along with chemotherapy to help overcome drug resistance. Cancer cells often become resistant to chemotherapy by developing the ability to pump the drugs out of the cells. These new agents inactivate the pumps, which allows the chemotherapy to remain in the cancer cells longer, which might make it more effective.

Chemotherapy in clinical trials

Chemotherapy drugs are still being developed and tested, and approved drugs are being studied in new ways. Clinical trials are studies of new or experimental drugs or other new treatment methods (including new regimens that use older drugs) in human volunteers. These studies are done when there’s a reason to believe a new drug or a new combination of drugs may be valuable in curing or controlling cancer.

If you wish to take part in a clinical trial, the researchers will fully explain the requirements to you and your family. You can always refuse to take part in the study, or leave the study at any time if you change your mind. Being in a clinical trial does not keep you from getting other medical or nursing care that you need.

People who volunteer to take part in clinical trials make an important contribution to medical care because the study results will also help future patients. At the same time, they may be among the first to benefit from these new treatments. To learn more about clinical trials, please see our document called Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know.

The American Cancer Society offers a clinical trials matching service for patients, their families, and friends. You can reach this service by calling 1-800-303-5691, or online at Based on the information you provide about your cancer type, stage, and previous treatments, the service will compile a list of clinical trials that match your medical needs. To help find a center more convenient for you, the service can also take into account where you live and whether you are willing to travel.

You can also get a list of current clinical trials by calling the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Cancer Information Service toll free at 1-800-422-6237. If you prefer, you can visit the NCI clinical trials Web site at

Last Medical Review: 02/07/2013
Last Revised: 02/07/2013